The Rise and Fall of Siraj Raval

in #ai2 years ago (edited)

siraj.png
Source: Instagram / montage

The world of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning(AI/ML) is relative drama free, especially when you compare it to the world of crypto (where there's drama happening almost every week). But recently Siraj Raval, the biggest YouTuber in this area fell from grace, and he fell hard. Siraj was (and probably still is) on a mission to educate the world about AI and ML and how to use it to "make the world a better place" (to use some Silicon Valley lingo).

The Rise

Both, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are rather old disciplines, their roots go all the way back to 1956. AI in particular had some hype-cycles in the past, which were followed by an AI Winter. Outside the hype-cycles, AI/ML were rather academic disciplines and boring for most people who are not involved with it. Until Siraj came. He managed to explain the concepts behind AI/ML and do it in an entertaining way. He is also excellent at grabbing people's attention on social media, a must in today's world. He started uploading videos in 2016, interestingly he started with videos about Bitcoin, but switched to AI/ML videos about three months later. Looking back at his rough early videos, you can really see how he improved his craft of making videos, I guess he also improved his skills in social media marketing. Combine that with more and more people are getting interested in AI/ML (probably seeing this as an opportunity to make a lot of money) and you have the perfect recipe for getting a huge following on YouTube (currently around 690.000 subscribers) in a relative niche topic, which is not very accessible (linear algebra and statistics are a must in this field) and rather boring at times (I work in this field and really like it, but I can't deny that the fundamentals are rather dry, and again: you need them).

I stumbled upon his videos in 2016 on Google+ (remember that kids?) and I really enjoyed them, there is something about learning difficult topics in an entertaining and fun way, I also liked the topic he was talking about, because they were rather cutting-edge at the time (they are still cutting-edge today). He was also the first YouTuber I ever subscribed to (and still is one of the few, I'm subscribed to). First I thought, that this is niche content, only interesting for a few people, who are like me. But looking at his subscriber count showed, that this assumption was wrong. In general, I really liked how he took AI/ML and presented it this fresh and sexy way.

The Fall

Back in those days, I was wondering, how he manages to release one video after another, while understanding the concepts behind it, coding and doing all the necessary marketing. I assumed, that he must be some kind of genius. In terms of marketing this might be true, in terms of code he had to rely on other peoples work, basically taking stuff from GitHub and maximal putting some wrappers around it. I will come back to that later.

There were two events, which triggered his fall:

  1. Students enrolled to a course of him were unhappy and demanded a refund, he handled that poorly
  2. He wrote a research paper, but it actually turned out, that it was mostly plagiarised.

Course

He offered a course called "Make Money with Machine Learning" for $199. The course is teaching people how machine learning works and how they can either start a business or land a well paid job using these skills. The title itself is kind of a red flag, but I'll let that pass. He promised to take maximal 500 students, but it turns out that he actually took over 1200 students for this course. When some students were not happy with the content of the course and demanded a refund, they found out that he didn't have a refund policy. When this situation occurred, he handled it rather poorly, which he admitted himself.

You can read more about this on The Register and Reddit. So far you might think: well, this is an honest mistake, sure if you work a lot, you can forget about some details. This course was actually not his first one, back in 2017 he did an Udacity Nanodegree on Deep Learning, one of the people from Udacity, he worked with, pointed out how even back then, he didn't really give much thought for correct attribution of work.

Plagiarism

That brings me now to the part two of his fall, and this one is rather big. Here on Steem, people should be aware why plagiarism is bad and why they mustn't do it. In the world of academia it is even more strict, plagiarism is a cardinal sin and one of the worst things you can do, the only thing that compares to it is fabricating data. In both cases you usually lose your job, degree, reputation and most likely your livelihood as well. Scientific integrity is a key principle in academia. He is not in academia, but even though he often pointed out, that he dropped out of college, the things he is talking about are still closely linked to academia and therefore he should follow its principles as well.

He published a research paper on quantum machine learning, which was a very blatant copy of another paper(he changed all "we" to "I" and made up some terms, which make no sense, e.g. turning "complex Hilbert spaces" to "complicated Hilbert spaces", complex in this case referring to complex numbers), he even cited in the abstract of his paper. In the livestream, I linked above, he even brags about this paper (the livestream was released, after the first "scandal" already happened). What makes the whole thing even more ironic is, that the example he brings is about fraud detection (which btw. was also not his own work). Here is the Tweet of Andrew Webb, who first exposed this and another article from The Register on this topic.

The question on my mind was simple: Why? I think that he is smart enough, to see that people will detect the plagiarism and call him out on that. He should also know, that losing his credibility will also have negative consequences for his YouTube career (although in terms of views of his videos, it didn't really show so far) and that people will stop taking him seriously. As I said above, his doesn't seem to put a lot of thought into correctly attributing other people's work. In his videos, he gave credit to the original authors of the code, but it was rather hidden (barely mentioned in his videos) and put into a new GitHub repository, instead of forking the existing one (which would be the proper way to do it, especially if you only do incremental updates).

The aftermath

Ever since, he released two videos: one where he shows the things some project the students of his course are working on and one where he talks about tools for developers, which again draws very heavy influences from the work of others. To be fair, this video was probably finished, before the whole plagiarism scandal broke loose and was scheduled to be posted after it did, and he didn't change it. But after everything that happened, he should have been more careful with this.

He also got kicked out of the School of AI, which he founded.

Of course, it is easy to point the finger and call "Scam!", but I don't think that's the case. He was undeniably good at making videos, that educated and inspired people, but he wasn't as good when it came to putting these ideas into code. I think that he had good intentions, but couldn't really keep up with them and started taking short-cuts, which ended in him blatantly plagiarising other people's work.

You could also argue, that he himself was in the process of learning, but Vicki Boykis put it best (I can highly recommend reading the whole article):

You can learn at 50 YouTube followers. You can’t learn when you have 700k. Which is maybe where he started copying and pasting code, to keep up.

Although I have to say that copying and pasting code was something he did before he got famous. To me it seems more like he took the "fake it until you make it" mentality of Silicon Valley way too far and it came back to hunt him. The gold rush mentality around AI/ML and the pace of social media also did their part.

However, I'm curious to see what new videos he releases and if he learned a lesson from all of this. I hope for him, that he adapts a less-is-more mentality and releases fewer videos, but puts more effort into the code behind these videos.

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What an interesting story. Thanks for that and the well researched links. I think success tempts you to get high flights. Without me having read any more details, this is a first guess, based on how you describe the situation and person. Perhaps also an act of self-sabotage, which interestingly enough is often to be found in us humans, even if we enjoy the success outwardly.

AI doesn't seem to me to be such a niche topic at all, because it is discussed from many sides, not only among the coders and programmers, but also the psychological and philosophical aspects, just as the social aspects seem to play an ever greater role here. This is what I found recently:

https://www.dfki.de/fileadmin/user_upload/import/9744_171012-KI-Gipfelpapier-online.pdf

Bye to Austria!

Thanks for stopping by :)

It might be him doing an act of self-sabotage, because, as I wrote, he should have known, that he will get caught. At the same time it might also be, that he already got away with a lot of things, that were borderline plagiarism (and was quite successful in doing so) and might thought that he will get away with this as well.
He released one video since I wrote this, which was very strange: instead of doing an honest apology video he put the apology inside another video about using AI for healthcare in Africa, pandering for sympathy. Or as the current top comment on the video put it:

Look at poor children in Africa. And BTW I am sorry I used copy and paste. Look at poor children again. - is it South Park?

People were generally not really happy about this, because he tried to weasel out, instead of coming clean.

About AI in general: a lot of people are talking about it, but unfortunately very few people actually understand what it is about (the DFKI does know, what they are talking about). Having a background in computer science and philosophy, I am luckily in a position where I can take a look at it from multiple angles. Unfortunately a lot of talk about AI is rather unqualified, especially when it a.) comes from politicians or b.) is just pure marketing speech.
Siraj tried to change it, but in the process he kind of became a victim of his success and turned into a marketing shill himself. However, I still highly appreciate what he tried to do: educating the masses about AI.

Greetings to Germany :)

Thanks for the feedback. I hear that you did not leave once and for all, so I might stop by once in a while :) I myself do not blog right now. But that means nothing. Just busy with other things.

While I think that what you say is true, that in general the knowledge of artificial intelligence is rather unprofessional, I think that on the whole people who live in highly engineered modern societies have an idea of it. In fact, AI's replace human work and one might wonder to what extent this will affect us humans in the future. A legitimate question, since AI technology is already in use to a large extent and will continue to be so. One may accuse the masses of a certain wisdom, because even if they cannot adequately cite the explanatory models for this in detail, they can nevertheless anticipate and foresee the effects. Despite marketing, exaggerated or false promises, people are quite capable of structuring their own situation and world view and of imagining effects on their own lives. What is verbally expressed in headlines, praise or condemnation, one can, if one wants, bring into a moderate form for oneself and only draw the essence from it: That modern man is not clueless. Even the way of perhaps clumsy and technically incorrect communication does not obscure it.

Siraj Raval will have to live with the fact that he has now ruined his reputation and has to bear the legal consequences of the plagiarism; on the other hand, I hear he will reap some gratitude for the educational work he has done. Both will play a greater or lesser role in his life. Depending on what he still has to learn. Some people need strong reactions in order to believe that what they have appropriated is indeed illegitimate. This may be because they separate state & law from themselves and do not accept the laws of a country or in the world. Especially in the field of copyright there are more and more discussions since the internet about who should claim where and what a copyright should be on and this discussion sometimes - I think erroneously - results in a kind of slackening of who claims to what intellectual property. Recently I followed a discussion about a photography plagiarism, where an artist simply pulled a picture out of the net and then changed it and presented it as her own work of art. In fact, the views on this were divided, although the law makes clear statements about it. I have the impression that the Internet has contributed greatly to softening the boundaries between property and public good. Whatever it's good for, it's never black or white.

Those who are professional, like you, can give their expertise and, if they are able to translate professional language into general language, make their contribution to educational work. It's also a compliment to Raval that you've given and if it weren't for his infringement, he really seems to have a talent for explaining things that are difficult to explain.

I will stick around, although right now I'm also very busy with a lot of things: work, studying and last weekend I moved :)

The problem with what is communicated about AI (especially in headlines) is, that it is mostly done by people who know to get the readers' attention, but do not necessarily have a good technical understanding of how AI works and what are its limits. I can't blame them for that, it is a rather complex subject, but I can blame them for building a lot of hype. Automation is nothing new, its happening since centuries, but so far mostly manual labor was automated, with AI also typical white collar jobs will be automated and I think this is what scares people, especially those working in white collar jobs.

There will be no legal ramifications for Siraj. What he did was morally wrong, but as far as I know, he didn't break the law (i.e. he didn't plagiarise to get a degree). The negative effect it had on his personal brand, which he built for over three years are more than enough punishment. About copyright: I think that "softening the boundaries between property and public good" is actually great for scientific and educational materials, loosening the copyright restrictions on this kind of content is great for disseminating it and it's good to not have additional restrictions, which hinder getting it into the hands of many people.

Those who are professional, like you, can give their expertise and, if they are able to translate professional language into general language, make their contribution to educational work.

I try my best to do so, but it is again something that takes a lot of time, which is unfortunately a very scarse resource for me.