The Paris C. Kanellakis Memorial Lecture, a 20-year tradition, honors Paris Kanellakis, a distinguished computer scientist who was an esteemed and beloved member of the Brown CS community. Paris came to Brown in 1981 and became a full professor in 1990. His research area was theoretical computer science, with emphasis on the principles of database systems, logic in computer science, the principles of distributed computing, and combinatorial optimization. He died in an airplane crash on December 20, 1995, along with his wife, Maria Teresa Otoya, and their two young children, Alexandra and Stephanos Kanellakis.
Each year, Brown CS invites one of the field's thought leaders to address wide-ranging topics in honor of Paris. Four years ago, Donald Knuth of Stanford University returned to Brown to give a "history of clever ideas that arose around the world” as he traced the evolution of a combinatorial problem dating back to antiquity. Last week, on December 15, 2020, Sridhar Ramaswamy delivered the twentieth annual Paris C. Kanellakis Memorial Lecture.
Sridhar is the Chief Executive Officer of Neeva, a software company that he started with Cosmos Nicolaou and Vivek Raghunathan in 2019. He has been a Venture Partner at Greylock Partners since October, 2018. Prior to founding Neeva, Sridhar oversaw all of Google’s Advertising products, which included search, display and video advertising, analytics, shopping, payments, and travel. He joined Google as an engineer in 2003 and was an integral part of the growth of AdWords and Google’s advertising business. Before that, Sridhar was a Director of Engineering for the analytics platform at E.piphany. He also held research positions at Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies, and Bell Communications Research (Bellcore). Sridhar earned his Bachelor's degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and his Master of Science and PhD in computer science from Brown University. He has published numerous papers on database systems and database theory and holds several patents in that area.
After an introduction by Brown CS Department Chair Ugur Çetintemel, who described Ramaswamy as someone "carrying our intellectual DNA forward" and who worked with Kanellakis on groundbreaking research, Sridhar began his talk by saying that he was moved and honored to be giving it 25 years after earning his PhD under Paris, whom he described as an amazing thinker.
"Neeva," he said, launching into a talk that was as much about economics, sociology, psychology, and entrepreneurship as it was technical, "is very much a product of the times that created this moment for us in the technology world." Describing search as the ultimate expression of human curiosity and one of the most profitable products of all time, Sridhar said that it also confines the user within the intellectual purview of the search results provider. The logical end result of the current state, he said, is that commercial queries will eventually only show ads, organic queries will only show owned content, and options and privacy will cease to exist.
In response, Sridhar positioned Neeva as an ethical, customized, and intellectually inquisitive counterstroke: "Paris often emphasized the spirit of discovery underpinning the science. I'd like to think in a small way that Neeva is the same." Giving the analogy that it makes no sense for a Brown CS professor searching for information in their research area to get the same results as a random person on the street, Ramaswamy explained that Neeva reimagines search with a customer-first approach: not showing ads, aware of the preferences of varying users, actively pro-privacy and anti-tracking. "What you do on a site," he said, "is your business and no-one else's." As it moves to a subscription-based business model in 2021, perhaps Neeva's biggest challenge stems from being a paid product competing against a well-established "free" alternative, and Sridhar devoted much of his talk to the research problems and psychological hurdles inherent in the company's value proposition.
When the talk neared its end, Sridhar's audience was eager to respond. As comments flooded in via the chat function, Ramaswamy answered one question after the next on topics that ranged from combating bias to ensuring data quality to preventing information bubbles. Professor Ritambhara Singh of Brown CS and Brown's Center for Computational Molecular Biology was one of the many attendees.
"Sridhar did a wonderful job," she says, "of explaining the customer-focused framework of Neeva. It was interesting to learn about the insights and the considerations that go into building a product for a space dominated by a technological behemoth. It was particularly interesting to learn his views on the issues of search result biases and 'opinion bubbles' raised during the Q+A with the audience. Such discussions are critical and relevant, and it's encouraging to see that people in the field are actively thinking about and working towards solutions."
Some of Ramaswamy's greatest enthusiasm was visible when he discussed the challenge of being a "tiny team creating something they think is better for the world because they think it's the right thing to do" going up against a well-established industry titan. Being delusional, Sridhar said half-jokingly, is an essential element of being a startup CEO: "I won't pretend that this is easy...but if all you aspire to be is what someone else already is, you’re always doomed to fail."
But a sense of quiet pride was evident as he described one of his currently small company's major differentiators. "We have," Ramaswamy said, "a singularity of purpose."
Brown CS regularly publishes news articles about our pioneering and innovative alums. We have no financial involvement in any of the companies mentioned above and have not been compensated in any way for this story.
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