‘Wait a Second, This Is Terrible.’

August 11, 2014

Sergey Feldman needed a drink.

It was last December after a long and frenetic day at Neural Information Processing Systems, or NIPS, a leading scholarly conference on machine learning. NIPS lives at the intellectual heart of academic computer science, the kind of gathering where gadgets and IPOs take a back seat to "deep fisher networks" and "robust multimodal graph matching."

The only event on the schedule that a layman might have cared to attend, or even understood, began at 3 p.m.: "Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg."

Mr. Zuckerberg’s unexpected visit came with news that Facebook would be opening a deep-learning research lab headed by Yann LeCun, a professor of computer science, neural science, and electrical and computer engineering at New York University. The Q&A was in essence a recruiting ploy—and an effective one. While security guards staffed the door, an overflow crowd of computer science’s brightest scholars flocked to hear Facebook's founder speak.

Mr. Feldman, who recently earned his Ph.D. at the University of Washington and now runs his own consulting practice, was among them. "The spectacle was so large—you had to go watch it," Mr. Feldman says. "You were mesmerized. It’s a like a car wreck. People slowed down to look."

Mr. Feldman grimaced at what he saw. This, he felt, was the ultimate corporate encroachment: an industrial titan hijacking time reserved for the best thinkers and the best ideas. It filled him with the same sense of foreboding he’d felt earlier in the week when rumors of professors receiving seven-figure offers for their best chunks of code seeped into the conference’s normally nerdy back-hall chatter. "Corporations are having a negative influence on academic culture," he says. "I see the difference. It’s tangible. It wasn’t tangible before."

Mr. Feldman and a friend—Alex Rubinsteyn, a Ph.D. candidate at NYU—trekked back to their Airbnb rental and began to vent. Mr. Rubinsteyn paced the room. Mr. Feldman sat down at his laptop. "We sort of had a few shots of scotch and I said, 'Wait a second, this is terrible,'" recalls Mr. Feldman. Between rants they pounded out a blog post decrying Mr. Zuckerberg’s appearance, embedding within it a broader critique of academic computer science in the age of Internet giants.

"There’s obviously a porous boundary between the corporate and academic worlds," they wrote, "but has it ever been this porous?"