#nuclai16 and the Dichotomy of Academic vs YouTube Dissemination

I write this post mere hours after returning to the UK from the 2016 nucl.ai conference which took place in Vienna, Austria. This is no surprise really, given I have for the past two years acted as a co-organiser of the event and on Monday (July 18th) was track chair for the ‘Dynamic Dialog and Storytelling’ track.


Now my involvement in nucl.ai to-date is but one of an increasing number of things I find myself doing. Naturally there is this site and the accompanying YouTube channel, but also my game development projects at Table Flip Games and – lest we forget – my actual day job: as a senior lecturer in Computer Science.

This post originates from an issue that came to a head during my time at nucl.ai and is focussed largely on matters pertinent, as well as the closure that I have subsequently found. However, I will take a moment to mention that the conference itself was once again excellent: with a storied and diverse gathering of practitioners from academia and industry in a variety of creative fields. This is in no small part due to the extensive work not just by us chairs and the senior organisers, but the crew and speakers who inject the event with a lot of passion and energy.

Track chairs from left to right: myself, Emil 'angryant' Johansen,  Michaël Rouillé, Richard Kogelnig and Noor Shaker
Some of our track chairs from left to right: Diego Perez Liebana (who is cropped out of frame), myself, Emil ‘angryant’ Johansen, Michaël Rouillé, Richard Kogelnig and Noor Shaker

But moving swiftly to the point: I have increasingly struggled with my sense of identity within the artificial/computational intelligence space over the past few years. This is clearly identified by my aforementioned list of projects: with teaching, research, academic publication and grant writing acting very much in contrast to indie video game development as well as acting as – for lack of a better term – a ‘YouTuber’ (while not ideal, I prefer it over ‘Content Creator’, which just sounds rather asinine). Much like my academic peers, I have been trained to focus on the practice of continued investigation, experimentation and dissemination. As such, we as a community are driven by a desire to work on our research interests and maintain an active level of publication (through peer-reviewed workshops, conferences and journals) that identifies our relevance and contributions to our field of study – it’s also of immense use when seeking validation of your work for both your thesis defence and subsequent academic career.  For those not familiar: academic appraisals are typically governed by three key outcomes:

  1. Has your teaching proven satisfactory this academic year?
  2. Have you written and had accepted peer-reviewed academic publications?
  3. Have you submitted (and preferably, won) grants from funding bodies to further your research agenda?

While these three are all rather important, it is typical for a department to place greater emphasis on items 2 and 3. While teaching is still important in the eyes of academic institutions (after all, it is sort of what we’re designed to do), gains in research funding and publication are capable of elevating the status of an institution more significantly than improvements in teaching quality.  This is reinforced even further in countries such as the UK which adopt the research excellence framework (REF) – a terribly flawed and broken system for grading research quality – and subsequently departments spend tremendous resource to ensure their academics are contributing towards the next REF assessment.  This only reinforces the established necessity in an academic’s mind for continued dissemination and publication.  It is hoped that through continued publication, we are recognised through citations of our work and ultimately will validate our work in the community and by extension our gainful employment.

So why am I talking about this?

It’s largely due to a phenomenon I’ve observed in recent months while attending conferences in (game) AI and being recognised as “the YouTube guy”.  This is once again the case at nucl.ai: with people ranging from crew to speakers to attendees recognising me as ‘that guy on YouTube’…

…and until recently, that really upset me.

Dissemination and Validation?

Now in many respects – as I have since concluded – this is a good thing.  AI and Games was founded on the principle that we try and encourage broader dissemination to the masses.  In an era of scapegoating and fearful rhetoric of AI methods and systems, it was important to try and balance that with a welcome and more open discussion.  However, to be considered ‘the YouTuber’ felt like it nullified my contributions to the community as a publishing academic.  I will be the first to admit that my research output is far from groundbreaking, but it often contributes momentum to the larger issues our community are discussing.  Please recognise this is not some attempt to ask for your validation.  Rather, I came to the conclusion that my own imposter syndrome had taken a new and improved form: one in which my public persona as a content creator online nullifies my contributions as an academic.  After all, we’re typically interested in paper acceptances, citations and metrics related to them, not YouTube views and time spent watching content.  YouTube statistics won’t help my appraisals and if I were in the U.S. I sincerely doubt it would help me achieve tenure, I worry that it could in fact do the opposite.

It is with this weight on my mind, I worried about whether I was inadvertently impacting my career by my YouTube work, which was funny in itself given I have never truly cared about my career until this point.  Frankly provided I could earn a living, I considered it a win.  The imposter syndrome ramped up given I now felt like a fraud: someone whose existence thrived more on the ability to disseminate the work of others.  Again, this sounds ridiculous given:

  1. Disseminating the work of others was the entire point of the channel.
  2. The crowdfunding this channel receives – for which I am eternally grateful – is seldom sufficient to cover costs of production, much less actually make a living from it.

For a while now I contemplated whether continuing to work on the channel is the correct course, only to then consider what would happen should it cease to be.  The ‘lecturer formerly known as a YouTuber’ would perhaps make things worse: maybe not in reality, but certainly in my head.

My nucl.ai panel comprised of Kate Compton, Jurie Horneman and Hannah Davis.
My nucl.ai panel comprised of Kate Compton, Jurie Horneman and Hannah Davis.

Moving Forward

As has been intimated throughout this piece, I have since gained some closure in realising something far more important: that not only is there an audience for this content, but that there are people for whom this work proves useful.  Most notably early-stage PhD students and aspiring postgraduate students who have came forward and discussed how useful they have found these videos.  Once I got over my own fears and irrational behaviour, I was reminded of the good – however small – that this work provides.  AI and Games caters to a similar and different audience from the likes of nucl.ai in that it can facilitate those starting out, but also prove of interest to those with no intention of moving into our field.  In some respects, after two years of video production, we are actually beginning to achieve the goals that we set out.

Sadly, I cannot make videos at a rate that many would prefer: I have received numerous suggestions both online and in-person for future videos.  I simply do not have the time, given my aforementioned commitments elsewhere.  If we were more popular and the crowdfunding was significantly higher, than I would most certainly consider it; given it achieves a level of dissemination unlike most other formats I have available to me.  With over 3000 subscribers and more everyday, we have an audience through which we can do something both engaging and relevant.  I hope this site and the channel can continue to provide useful, insightful and entertaining content in the future.

If anything, given this is also around the 2-year mark of formally starting AI and Games, I will take a moment to wish a sincere thank you for your continued support and interest.  Furthermore, an even bigger thank you to my sponsors on Patreon, who continue to donate a little every month to help me keep this content ticking over.  I realise this might be a little on the nose, but if you are interested in sponsoring and supporting my content, please check out www.patreon.com/ai_and_games

For those looking for some insight into nucl.ai content and hopefully some videos?  Sorry this might not be what you were after but stay tuned!  I have a number of videos planned based on content and discussions I have had during my time at nucl.ai.

Catch you on YouTube soon!


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Tommy Thompson Written by:

Tommy is the writer and producer of AI and Games. He's a senior lecturer in computer science and researcher in artificial intelligence with applications in video games. He's also an indie video game developer with Table Flip Games. Because y'know... fella's gotta keep himself busy.

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