A mug with the abstract from James' PHD thesis printed on the side

Annual Review 2023

It’s that time of year where people reflect on how their year went. I’d say this year has been a really mixed bag as my life has changed and transformed post-PhD study and my job has transformed significantly post funding at work. There were lots of exciting achievements and events but a little stagnation on some fronts. I hope that next year I can focus a little more on some of those areas.

Becoming a Doctor…

a mug with the abstract from James' phd thesis printed on it

I’d say my biggest achievement this year was finally completing my PhD after 7 years of part time study after having my thesis corrections accepted in February. I began my PhD in Natural Language Processing with the University of Warwick in 2015 while I was still at IBM. During that time a lot has changed, both for me personally and in technology and machine learning. The last few years have been a huge challenge but I’m really happy that they’ve paid off.

Unfortunately I was sick during my graduation ceremony but I graduated in absentia and received my doctoral certificate in the mail. I had a lot of fun updating my title to Dr from Mr on as many official documents as I can and repeatedly making the joke about “is there a doctor in the house? Yes but I can’t help with your medical emergency.”

I am excited to continue working on my academic projects as a sideline and will be staying in touch with my supervisors at the University of Warwick, Aberystwyth University and the Alan Turing Institute.

Public Appearances & Talks

I’ve done reasonably well for public speaking gigs this year. In April I was invited to give a talk about applied AI at Rare Earth Digital’s Debrief event in Nantwich, Cheshire. This gave me an opportunity to put together a slide deck that incorporated my experience of building machine learning and AI solutions over the last decade and some some cautionary tales about LLMs that I picked up from folks like Simon WIllison.

James standing at the front of a function room filled with people siting at round tables.

I then did something of a “tour”, presenting similar material at a local Science Cafe, an event for KTP associates at the University of Essex and privately for my wife’s team at her workplace.

Earlier in December I was invited by a member of my PhD cohort to join a panel discussion about AI in industry. The audience were made up of heavy hitters from a diverse set of companies and industries. I was pleasantly surprised at the level of discourse and the healthy cynicism that the audience had about the blind application of GPT and LLMs.

A webcam photo of panelists sat in a lecture theatre with James in the middle.
My first visit to The Shard in London was as part of a panel discussion on AI as part of a course run by Warwick Business School

In October, I also attended an awards ceremony, accepting the trophy for best emerging tech firm on behalf of my company.

Work Achievements

This year my company went from being pretty much fully bootstrapped to taking on some investment money. This was a new experience for pretty much all of the senior leadership and the experience has been very exciting and enlightening and at times quite uncomfortable. It was great as it meant that we could move offices, give out pay rises and recruit but It’s also been a big change of pace and focus for me with the engineering team almost doubling in size. In late September we had a leadership team retreat and we’ve been working on ways to improve the way that our product team work together to make things super sleak.

I’ve found that the hype around generative AI hasn’t impacted what we do as much as you might expect. As I wrote earlier in the year, NLP is about a lot more than just LLMs and we need to provide reliable systems that don’t hallucinate about stuff. There are still a huge number of unsolved problems in this space and much more efficient ways to solve them than throwing GPT-4 at it.

Projects and Open Source Contributions

By far the biggest success I had this year was Turbopilot which was hugely successful when I first launched it in April thanks to a tweet by Clem Delangue. It was really interesting to play with llama.cpp and learn about quantizing models, not just because of all the LLM stuff but because this technique can be applied to other types of models to make them smaller and more efficient too. I stopped developing Turbopilot in september when it was clear that other, better-staffed projects were doing a better job. I wrote about it at the time. Turbopilot was then featured in a keynote at Intel’s 2023 Innovate conference after I spent a little time coordinating with a couple of their engineers in order to help get it running smoothly on intel CPUs.

I’ve also made a couple of smaller contributions this year:

Misc Personal Stats

According to my bookwyrm stats, this year I read 11, nearly 12, books. That is a disappointingly low number for me. Last year I managed nearly double that. My favourite books this year have been the Dredd: The Early Years (non-affiliate link) series which are properly pulpy/cheesy sci-fi and William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (non-affiliate link) definitely a bit of a Cyberpunk theme going on. My favourite non-fic book was Sprawl Trilogy (I spent a bit of time test driving their AI DJ earlier in the year and that led me to discover some amazing new bands. Of particular note, The Last Dinner Party who I can’t stop telling people about. I tried out Jungle’s new album, it’s not my favourite but there are some catchy tracks on there. I recently updated my music recommendations page over on my digital garden with some recommendations.

Mrs R and I have retained our Cineworld memberships and been to see a few films this year. That said I still haven’t gotten around to the Barbenheimer experience that was all the rage earlier in the year. I recently saw Wonka which I actually enjoyed quite a lot. It had a lot of actors from British sitcoms like Peep Show and Ghosts.

Habits and Fitness

I’ve been a fair bit better at journaling and meditating this year but I’ve definitely gained some weight this year which is unfortunate. I was probably at peak fitness towards the beginning of 2021 having spent most of lockdown eating healthily and regularly going for walks. This year we’ve been eating less well and doing less exercise and I’ve got the “dad bod” to prove it. I’ve had a few conversations with other people about getting back on the fitness train next year including some colleagues at work and Kev Quirk who is trying to avoid being a fat boy at 40. I’m a few years away from 40 but I am going to try and do a similar “fat boy at 35” challenge.

I have made a few weeknotes this year but felt a little self-conscious about publishing something every week, particularly during weeks where it’s felt like not much has happened. I might re-jig the format next year and switch to private weekly reviews and monthly blog reviews more like Jan-Lukas.

Both Mrs R and I have found the pace of this year pretty challenging and it’s had a knock on effect on our personal projects around the house and our general health and fitness. Hopefully next year these are some areas that we can work on together.

Travel and Family

I’ve managed to do a fair bit of travelling around this year and seen a lot more of my family than since pre-covid. In May we took a week-long trip up to the Lake District around the time of my birthday. At the same time, we popped in to visit my parents in the midlands and my dad, who has been taking flying lessons, took us up in a small aircraft which was really exciting.

While we were up in the Lake district we got to visit Kendal Museum where my late grandfather was the custodian in the 1990s. It was great to be back there as I have many treasured memories of Kendal and the surrounding lakes. We couldn’t pass up an opportunity to recreate an old photo.

In June we went on a cruise around the Mediterranean with my dad and his wife to celebrate his 60th birthday. We stopped off at Pisa, Corsica, Marseilles, Palamos and a few others. We briefly visited St Tropez and I was a bit taken aback by the ostentatious and inauthentic display of wealth in the town.

Then, in September, we also did a beach and chill holiday in Cyprus where we spent a lot of time reading, swimming and drinking cocktails. We spent a lot of time making friends with the local stray cats of Cyprus who we wanted to smuggle home with us.

I have found that I’ve been ill quite a lot this year. From about mid-February until the end of April I had coughs, colds and COVID almost every other week. This has prevented us from visiting family and friends quite as often as I’d have liked this year. In particular, I would have liked to have visited some of my old school friends, one of whom is expecting their first child early in the year. We also had to cancel some concerts and shows due to illness and dangerous weather. Although it’s not necessarily my fault that I got ill or that there was a raging storm, next year I hope to rectify this where possible by visiting as many of my friends as possible. I’m hoping that our fitness goals will also help with the whole “being sick” thing.

Next Year

Rather than making a separate new year post, let me make some predictions and set some goals here.

I’d summarise by saying that getting fitter and looking myself a little bit more are the main things that I’m aiming for in 2024.

I’m also keen to improve on my existing journaling and planning habits. I recently joined the Ness Labs community and I’m keen to try and take part in some of the workshops and meetups around these topics.

I’ve enjoyed all of my public appearances and speaking in 2023 and I hope to continue with these sorts of activities next year. I’d like to get more engaged with the BCS (of which I am a member but have yet to go to any events) and join more meetups and events locally.

I think it’d be nice to make more progress on jobs around the house next year too, we’ve slacked off somewhat in 2023 and we have a few maintenance and decorating type jobs that we need to tick off the list.

I’ve published a fair few posts and articles on this site in 2023. I’d like to keep this up in the new year, possibly changing from weekly to monthly reviews as mentioned above and also writing more about stuff I’m working on.

Happy end of the year everyone, hope to speak to you all in 2024!

  1. brainsteam.co.uk avatar

    … commented on this.

  2. Jane Shore avatar

    Such a nice summary! I found this via Ness Labs and appreciate your sharing. Congratulations on all the accomplishments, and for telling the story of your process.

    1. jamesravey avatar

      Very kind of you to say thanks Jane!

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