Over the last two days I was fortunate enough to attend the YOW! 2023 conference in Brisbane. It took the form of three tracks of talks over the two days with an opening keynote each morning. Here are some of the talks that stood out too me from the event and my thoughts on the topics.
Hedy: Creating a programming language for everyone
Felienne Hermans was telling the story of the creation of an education tool that makes it easier for children to learn to programme. As I was taking my own children to school on this morning I missed the beginning of this talk and caught it from about half-way through. However, what I did see was a very interesting look at the intersection of education and programming.
When a new user is given Hedy to work through they are given tasks that look like natural language and then slowly build the syntax up to be fully fledged Python. It is also possible to programme in many different languages including non-latin and right to left languages to make it even easier for newer programmers to learn. Now they can learn the language without needing to learn bits of English at the same time.
You can see an older version of the talk on YouTube from GOTO 2022 too.
Deep learning computer vision
Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe has been working on some interesting things using computer vision to determine if a given photography contains beauty or not as her passion project. Working at Zoopla she has used computer vision to assess photos of properties to inform value and detect if the renovations have been performed.
The understanding around what is a beautiful place and how it can be mapped and used to inform the creation of better public spaces was the more interesting aspect of the talk to me. One idea I particularly liked was having an app that could give you a suggested route to a given destination using the most scenic path possible.
She has co-founded a Community Interest Company in the United Kingdom to continue this work called Beautiful Places.
There is a condensed version of this talk from the Turing Institute two years ago.
Deterministic execution to scale and simplify
Frank Yu works at Coinbase and works on engineering problems that require low latency in the trading exchange. This talk spoke to making systems deterministic such that consistency between regions can be guaranteed. Essentially, you can send the same message to a service (or a collection of services) and the result will be the same.
The main thrust of the talk was saving money on transfer by computing smaller deterministic messages multiple times - they idea being that compute is cheap and network is expensive.
There is a video of a similar talk Frank gave at QCon London 2023.
Tipping points in Technology
Dylan Beattie took us through an entertaining discussion of what the future could look like through the lens of previous technological scares. When something new comes along (such as AI) then it is natural for some to be concerned or predict wild outcomes. It could be the case that AI takes all our jobs, but currently it is being used to produce things such as books and code that need a lot of human intervention for them to produce useful content.
Real world uses for WebAssembly
Katie Bell spent the talk discussing how WebAssembly can be used to create a safe execution target for arbitrary code on the server and browser/client.
She illustrated how this can work best using the example of Shopify that use it encapsulate user code within the checkout flow so they can ensure third-party code (plugins or APIs) do not slow down the checkout process. She also covered other technologies for isolated execution such as docker/containers with and without gVisor and V8 Isolates for Node.js. CloudFlare use V8 Isolates at edge to reduce the time a function takes to start up.
Using a rock, paper, scissors tournament application she demonstrated live in her talk how users could submit and execute code on her server. You can either upload a WebAssembly .wasm file or enter Python code directly into a code editor on the page to create a bot that will accept some input and return either rock, paper or scissors. It is then entered into a knockout tournament with other people’s bots to see who comes out on top.
Local first software
Brooklyn Zelenka discussed the work her team has been doing to bring about a local first form of computing. This is in contrast to the current paradigm of putting everything on the cloud and having the cloud as the single source of truth like Google Docs etc.
The main idea is tha things should work locally first and also give the user control over their data. This is built upon deterministic units of work that are signed.
There is an older version of this talk available on YouTube.
There’s no such thing as plain text
These were some of the standout talks I attended at YOW! 2023. While not every talk was directly relevant to my work, the conference provided interesting insights, prompting me to delve deeper into some of the ideas.