Joy in Research

By Charles Sutton on January 1, 2023

It’s hard to remember what machine learning conferences were like in person, but I think that I liked them a lot better when the field was smaller. It was easier to meet new people, to talk about new ideas in small groups of talented people who were really excited by them. The culture of the field has changed from back then, in intellectual ways that you know already, but the social ways are worth reflecting on, too.

Romanticizing the past is a sorry hobby for old men. I will not do that. All research communities have a callous system at their core — I’ve written about the toxic forces that drive and derail research careers — that’s always been the case.

Maybe now, these forces have gotten stronger and worse: The field is so much larger, we don’t all know each other, and the rewards for success are greater than I would have thought possible twenty years ago. The incentive to be competitive rather than kind, to fight on social media rather than to learn from people you disagree with, to speak hype rather than forthright truth, is so hard to resist. The temptation, in a word, to career rather than to learn. And as loath as I am to admit it, I have changed, too. Probably in similar ways, and for similar reasons.

Of course I wouldn’t want to go back. The most exciting time to be in this field is right now. But maybe I would go back in time, if just to grab something and come back. What I would bring with me is joy. Joy in reading a paper with a cute new idea, and chatting about it with friends over lunch. The joy that would impel us to make up a stupid song or a silly skit about our research workshop, with the same spirit of play to work out a new kind of algorithm, which may seem silly at first.

Joy in learning, joy in sharing, and joy in trying things out.

Happy new year!

Tags: advice, new years