Monday, January 16, 2017

Physicists Will Soon Rule Silicon Valley

It's a bad time to be a physicist.

At least, that’s what Oscar Boykin says. He majored in physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and in 2002 he finished a physics PhD at UCLA. But four years ago, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland discovered the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle first predicted in the 1960s. As Boykin points out, everyone expected it. The Higgs didn’t mess with the theoretical models of the universe. It didn’t change anything or give physcists anything new to strive for. “Physicists are excited when there’s something wrong with physics, and we’re in a situation now where there’s not a lot that’s wrong,” he says. “It’s a disheartening place for a physicist to be in.” Plus, the pay isn’t too good.

Boykin is no longer a physicist. He’s a Silicon Valley software engineer. And it’s a very good time to be one of those.

Boykin works at Stripe, a $9-billion startup that helps businesses accept payments online. He helps build and operate software systems that collect data from across the company’s services, and he works to predict the future of these services, including when, where, and how the fraudulent transactions will come. As a physicist, he’s ideally suited to the job, which requires both extreme math and abstract thought. And yet, unlike a physicist, he’s working in a field that now offers endless challenges and possibilities. Plus, the pay is great.

If physics and software engineering were subatomic particles, Silicon Valley has turned into the place where the fields collide. Boykin works with three other physicists at Stripe. In December, when General Electric acquired the machine learning startup, CEO Jeff Immelt boasted that he had just grabbed a company packed with physicists, most notably UC Berkeley astrophysicist Joshua Bloom. The open source machine learning software H20, used by 70,000 data scientists across the globe, was built with help from Swiss physicist Arno Candel, who once worked at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Vijay Narayanan, Microsoft’s head of data science, is an astrophysicist, and several other physicists work under him.

It’s not on purpose, exactly. “We didn’t go into the physics kindergarten and steal a basket of children,” says Stripe president and co-founder John Collison. “It just happened.” And it’s happening across Silicon Valley. Because structurally and technologically, the things that just about every internet company needs to do are more and more suited to the skill set of a physicist.

The Naturals

Of course, physicists have played a role in computer technology since its earliest days, just as they’ve played a role in so many other fields. John Mauchly, who helped design the ENIAC, one of the earliest computers, was a physicist. Dennis Ritchie, the father of the C programming language, was too.

But this is a particularly ripe moment for physicists in computer tech, thanks to the rise of machine learning, where machines learn tasks by analyzing vast amounts of data. This new wave of data science and AI is something that suits physicists right down to their socks.

by Cade Metz, Wired |  Read more:
Image: Einstein's Zurich Notebook