An interview with Prof. Alan Smeaton

Prof. Alan Smeaton was interviewed by Michael Riegler.

About Prof. Alan Smeaton: 

Since 1997 Alan Smeaton has been a Professor of Computing at Dublin City University. He joined DCU (then NIHED) in 1987 having completed his PhD in UCD under the supervision of Prof. Keith van Rijsbergen. He also completed an M.Sc. and  B.Sc. at UCD.

In 1994 Alan was chair of the ACM SIGIR Conference which he hosted in Dublin, program co-chair of  SIGIR in Toronto in 2003 and general chair of the Conference on Image and Video Retrieval (CIVR) which he hosted in Dublin in 2004.  In 2005 he was program co-chair of the International Conference on Multimedia and Expo in Amsterdam, in 2009 he was program co-chair of ACM MultiMedia Modeling conference in Sophia Antipolis, France and in 2010 co-chair of the program for CLEF-2010 in Padova, Italy.

Alan has published over 600 book chapters, journal and refereed conference papers as well as dozens of other presentations, seminars and posters and he has a Google Scholar h-index of 58. He was an Associate Editor of the ACM Transactions on Information Systems for 8 years, and has been a member of the editorial board of four other journals. He is presently a member of the Editorial Board of Information Processing and Management.

Alan has graduated 50 research students since 1991, the vast majority at PhD level. He has acted as examiner for PhD theses in other Universities on more than 30 occasions, and has assisted the European Commission since 1990 in dozens of advisory and consultative roles, both as an evaluator or reviewer of project proposals and as a reviewer of ongoing projects. He has also carried out project proposal reviews for more than 20 different research councils and funding agencies in the last 10 years.

More recently Alan is a Founding Director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, Dublin City University (2013-2019), the largest single non-capital research award given by a research funding agency in Ireland. He is Chair of ACM SIGMM (Special Interest Group in Multimedia), (2017-) and a member of the Scientific Committee of COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology), an EU funding program with a budget of €300m in Horizon 2020.

In 2001 he was joint (and founding) coordinator of TRECVid – the largest worldwide benchmarking evaluation on content-based analysis of multimedia (digital video) which runs annually since then and way back in 1991 he was a member of the founding steering group of TREC, the annual Text Retrieval Evaluation Conference carried out at the US National Institute for Standards and Technology, US, 1991-1996.

Alan was awarded the Royal Irish Academy Gold Medal for Engineering Sciences in 2015. Awarded once every 3 years, the RIA Gold Medals were established in 2005 “to acclaim Ireland’s foremost thinkers in the humanities, social sciences, physical & mathematical sciences, life sciences, engineering sciences and the environment & geosciences”.

He was jointly awarded the Niwa-Takayanagi Prize by the Institute of Image Information and Television Engineers, Japan for outstanding achievements in the field of video information media and in promoting basic research in this field.  He is a member of the Irish Research Council (2012-2015, 2015-2018), an appointment by the Irish Government and winner of Tony Kent Strix award (2011) from the UK e-Information Society for “sustained contributions to the field of ... indexing and retrieval of image, audio and video data”.

Alan is a member of the ACM, a Fellow of the IEEE and is a Fellow of the Irish Computer Society.

Michael Alexander Riegler: 

Michael is a scientific researcher at Simula Research Laboratory. He received his Master's degree from Klagenfurt University with distinction and finished his PhD at the University of Oslo in two and a half years. His PhD thesis topic was efficient processing of medical multimedia workloads.

His research interests are medical multimedia data analysis and understanding, image processing, image retrieval, parallel processing, crowdsourcing, social computing and user intent. Furthermore, he is involved in several initiatives like the MediaEval Benchmarking initiative for Multimedia Evaluation, which runs this year the Medico task (automatic analysis of colonoscopy videos)footnote{http://www.multimediaeval.org/mediaeval2017/medico/}.

A young Alan Smeaton before the start of his career.

The young Alan Smeaton before the start of his career.

Please describe your journey into computing from your youth up to the present. What foundational lessons did you learn from this journey? Why were you initially attracted to multimedia?

I started a University course in Physics and Mathematics and in order to make up my credits I needed to add another subject so I chose Computer Science, which was then a brand new topic in the Science Faculty.  Maybe it was because the class sizes were small so the attention we got was great, or maybe I was drawn to the topic in some other way but I dropped the Physics and took the Computer Science modules instead and I never looked back.  I was fortunate in that my PhD supervisor was Keith van Rijsbergen who is one of the “fathers” of information retrieval and who had developed the probabilistic model of IR. Having him as my supervisor was the first lucky thing to have happened to me in my research. His approach was to let me make mistakes in my research, to go down cul-de-sacs and discover them myself, and as a result I emerged as a more rounded, streetwise researcher and I’ve tried to use the same philosophy with my own students.  

For many years after completing my PhD I was firmly in the information retrieval area. I hosted the ACM SIGIR Conference in Dublin in the mid 1990s and was Program Co-Chair in 2003, and workshops, tutorials, etc. chair in other years. My second lucky break in my research career happened in 1991 when Donna Harman of NIST asked me if I’d like to join the program committee of a new initiative she was forming called TREC, which was going to look at information retrieval on test collections of documents and queries but in a collaborative, shared framework.  I jumped at the opportunity and got really involved in TREC in those early years through the 1990s. In 2001 Donna asked me if I’d chair a new TREC track that she wanted to see happen, doing content analysis and search on digital video which was then emerging and in which our lab was establishing a reputation for novel research.  Two years later that TREC activity had grown so big it was spawned off as a separate activity and TRECVid was born, starting formally in 2003 and continuing each year since then. That’s my third lucky break.

Sometime in the early 2000s I went to my first ACM MULTMEDIA conference because of my leading of TRECVid, and I loved it. The topics, the openness, the collaborations, the workshops, the intersection of disciplines all appealed to me and I don’t think I’ve missed an ACM MULTIMEDIA Conference since then.

Talking about ACM MULTIMEDIA, this year emerged some critics that there was no female keynote speaker. What do you think about this and how do you see the role of women in research and especially in the field of multimedia?

The first I heard of this was when I saw it on the conference website and that is when I realised it and I don’t agree with it. I will be proposing several initiatives to the Executive Committee of SIGMM to improve the gender balance and diversity in our sponsored conferences, covering invited panel speakers, invited keynote speakers, raising the importance of the women’s lunch event at the ACM MULTIMEDIA conference starting with this year.  I will also propose including a role for a Diversity Chair in some of the SIGMM sponsored events.  I’ve learned a lot in a short period of time from colleagues in ACM SIGCHI whom I reached out to for advice, and I’ve looked at the practices and experiences of conferences like ACM CHI, ACM UIST, and others.  However these are just suggestions at the moment and need to be proposed and approved by the SIGMM Executive so I can’t say much more about them yet, but watch this space.

Tell us more about your vision and objectives behind your current roles? What do you hope to accomplish and how will you bring this about?

I hold a variety of roles in my Professional work. As a Professor and teacher I am responsible for delivering courses to first year first semester undergraduates which I love doing because these are the fresh-faced students just arriving at University. I also teach at advanced Masters level and that’s something else I love, albeit with different challenges. As a Board member of the Irish Research Council I help oversee the policies and procedures for Council’s funding of about 1,400 researchers from all disciplines in Ireland. I’m also on the inaugural Scientific Committee of COST, the EU funding agency which funds networking of researchers across more than 30 EU countries and further field. Each year COST funds networking activities for over 40,000 researchers across all disciplines, which is a phenomenal number and my role on the Scientific Committee is to oversee the policies and procedures and help select those areas (called Actions) that get funded.  

Apart from my own research team and working with them as part of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, and the work I do each year in TRECVid, the other major responsibility I have is as Chair of ACM SIGMM, a role I took up in July 2017, just 2 months ago.  While I had a vision of what I believed should happen in SIGMM and I wrote some of this in my candidature statement (can be found at the bottom of the interview), since assuming the role and realising what SIGMM is like “from the inside” I am seeing that vision and objectives evolve as I learn more. Certainly there are some fundamentals like welcoming and supporting early career researchers, broadening our reach to new communities both geographical and in terms of research topics, ensuring our conferences maintain their very high standards, and being open to new initiatives and ideas, these fundamentals will remain as important.  We expect to announce a new annual conference in multimedia for Asia shortly and that will be added to the 4 existing annual events we run.   In addition I am realising that we need to increase our diversity, gender being one obvious instance of that but there are others.  Finally, I think we need to constantly monitor what is our identity as a community of researchers linked by the bond of working in Multimedia. As the area of Multimedia itself evolves, we have to lead and drive that evolution, and change with it.

I know that may not seem like a lot of aspiration without much detail but as I said earlier, that’s because I’m only in the role a couple of months and the details of these need to be worked out and agreed with the SIGMM Executive Committee, not just me alone, and that will happen over the next few months.

Prof. Alan Smeaton in 2017.

Prof. Alan Smeaton in 2017.

That multimedia evolves is an interesting statement. I often heard people discussing about the definition of multimedia research and they are quite diverse. What is your “current” definition of multimedia research?

The development of every technology has a similar pathway. Multimedia is not a single technology but a constellation of technologies but it has the same kind of pathway. It starts from a blue skies idea that somebody has, like lets put images and sound on computers, and then it becomes theoretical research perhaps involving modelling in some way. That then turns into basic research about the feasibility of the idea and gradually the research gets more and more practical. Somewhere along the way, not necessarily from the outset, applications of the technology are taken into consideration and that is important to sustain the research interest and funding. As applications for the technology start to roll out, this triggers a feedback loop with more and more interest directed back towards the theory and the modelling, improving the initial ideas and taking them further, pushing boundaries of the implementations and making the final applications more compelling, cheaper, faster, greater reach, more impact, etc.  Eventually, the technology may get overtaken by some new blue skies idea leading to some new theories and some new feasibilities and practical applications. Technology for personal transport is one such example with horse-drawn carriages leading to petrol-driven cars and as we are witnessing, into other forms of autonomous, electric-power vehicles.

Research into multimedia is in the mid-life stage of the cycle. We’re in that spiral where new foundational ideas, new theories, new models for those theories, new feasibility studies, new applications, and new impacts, are all valid areas to be working in, and so the long answer to your question about my definition of multimedia research is that it is all of the above.

At the conference people often talk about their experience that their research got criticized for being too applied which seems to be a general problem of multimedia hearing it from so many. Based on your experience in national and international funding panels it would be interesting hear your opinion about this issue and how researchers in the multimedia community could tackle it.

I’ve been there too, so I understand what they are talking about.  Within our field of multimedia we cover a broad church of research topics, application areas, theories and techniques and to say a piece of work is too applied is an inappropriate criterion for it not to be appreciated.  

“Too applied” should not be confused with research impact as research impact is something completely different.  Research impact refers to when our research contributes or generates some benefit outside of academic or research circles and starts to influence the economy or society or culture. That’s something we should all aspire to as members of our society and when it happens it is great. Yet not all research ideas will develop into technologies or implementations that have impact.  Funding agencies right across the world now like to include impact as part of their evaluation and assessment and researchers are now expected to include impact assessment as part of funding proposals.

I do have concerns that for really blue skies research the eventual impact cannot really be estimated. This is what we call high risk / high return and while some funding agencies like the European Research Council actively promote such high risk exploratory work, other agencies tend to go for the safer bet. Happily, we’re seeing more and more of the blue skies funding like the Australian Research Council’s and the Irish Research Council’s Laureate schemes

Can you profile your current research, its challenges, opportunities, and implications?

This is a difficult question for me to answer since the single most dominant characteristics of my research are that it is hugely varied and it is based on a large number of collaborations with researchers in diverse areas. I am not a solo researcher and while I respect and admire those who are, I am at the opposite end of that spectrum. I work with people.

For example today, as I write this interview, is been a busy day for me in terms of research.  I’ve done a bit of writing on a grant proposal I’m working on which proposes using data from a wearable electromyography coupled with other sensors, in determining the quality of a surgical procedure.  I’ve reviewed a report from a project I’m part of which uses low-grade virtual reality in a care home for people with dementia.  I’ve looked at some of the sample data we’ve just got where we’re applying our people-counting work to drone footage of crowds. I wrote a section of a paper describing our work on human-in-the-loop evaluation of video captioning and I met a Masters student who is doing work on propensity modelling for a large bank, and now at the end of the day I’m finishing this interview. That’s an atypical day for me but the range of topics is not unusual.  

What are the challenges and opportunities in this … well it is never difficult to get motivated because the variety of work makes it so interesting, so the challenge is in managing them so that they each get a decent slice of time and effort. Prioritisation of work tasks is a life skill which is best learned the hard way, it is something we can’t teach and while to some people it comes naturally for most of us it is something we need to be aware of.  So if I have a takeaway message for the young researcher it is this … always try to make your work interesting and to explore interesting things because then it is not a chore, it becomes a joy.

This was an very inspiring answer and I think described perfectly how diverse and interesting multimedia research is. Thinking about the list of your projects you describe it seems that all of them address societal important challenges (health care, security, etc.) How important do you think it is to address problems that are helpful for the society and do you think that more researchers in the field of multimedia should follow this path?

I didn’t deliberately set out to address societal challenges in my work and I don’t advocate that everyone should do so in all their work. The samples of my work I mentioned earlier just happen to be like that but sometimes it is worth doing something just because it is interesting even though it may end up as a cul-de-sac. We can learn so much from going down such cul-de-sacs both for ourselves as researchers, for our own development, as well as contributing to knowledge that something does not work.

In your whole interview so far you did not mention A.I. or deep learning. Could you please share your view on this hot topic and its influence on the multimedia community (if possible positive and negative aspects)?

Imagine, a whole conversation on multimedia without mentioning deep learning, so far !  Yes indeed it is a hot topic and there’s a mad scramble to use and try it for all kinds of applications because it is showing such improvement in many tasks and yes indeed it has raised the bar in terms of the quality of some tasks in multimedia, like concept indexing from visual media. However those of us around long enough will remember the “AI Winter” from a few decades ago, and we can’t let this great breakthrough raise expectations that we and others may have about what we can do with multi-modal and multimedia information.

So that’s the word of caution about expectations, but when this all settles down a bit and we analyse the “why” behind the success of deep learning we will realise that the breakthrough is as a result of closer modelling of our own neural processes. Early implementations of our own neural processing was in the form of  multi-connected networks, and things like the Connection Machine were effectively unstructured networks. What deep learning is doing is it is applying structure to the network by adding layers. Going forward, I believe we will turn more and more to neuroscience to inform us about other more sophisticated network structures besides layers, which reflect how the brain works and, just as today’s layered neural networks replicate one element we will use other neural structures for even more sophisticated (and deeper) learning.

ACM candidature statement:

I am honored to run for the position of Chair of SIGMM. I am an active member of ACM since I hosted the SIGIR conference in Dublin in 1994 and have served in various roles for SIGMM events since the early 2000s.

I see two ways in which we can maintain and grow SIGMM’s relevance and importance. The first is to grow collaborations we have with other areas. Multimedia technologies are now a foundation stone in many application areas, from digital humanities to educational technologies, from gaming to healthcare. If elected chair I will seek to reach out to other areas collaboratively, whereby their multimedia problems become our challenges, and developments in our area become their solutions.

My second priority will be to support a deepening of collaborations within our field. Already we have shown leadership in collaborative research with our Grand Challenges, Videolympics, and the huge leverage we get from shared datasets, but I believe this could be even better.
By reaching out to others and by deepening collaborations, this will improve SIGMM’s ability to attract and support new members while keeping existing members energised and rejuvenated, ensuring SIGMM is the leading special interest group on multimedia.

Bookmark the permalink.