From Archaeology to Computational Linguistics: A Story of Peregrinatio Academica
This is a story of academic mobility and personal development. It is the story of how pursuing the dream of becoming a professor in Archaeology, I eventually ended up funding Ludwig, a Computational Linguistics and Artificial Intelligence company.
Being an archaeologist, in order to make sense of things, I have to put them into an historical perspective. The Latin term Universitas refers to the gathering of magistrorum et scholarium, i.e. of teachers and learners. Both teachers and learners moved from town to town to teach or learn. Hence, academic mobility, or peregrinatio academica, goes inevitably hand in hand with Universitas. Mobility is above all a state of mind. Mobility is the condition of permanent change and mental disposition to learn new things and to change one’s own mind and path. Mobility comes at a price: family, stability and roots are sacrificed on the altar of knowledge and self-realization.
For several years I was like a medieval clericus vagans (wandering clergy) erring amore scientie from town to town (peregrinatio academica) in search of knowledge and adventures. My journey started in 2001 at the Faculty of Law at the University of Palermo. I soon realized that I wasn’t made to become a judge. I changed cities and subjects and started Archaeology in Viterbo. Cutting the umbilical cord with Palermo, my hometown, wasn’t easy back then and it still hurts 14 years later, but I was on a mission to become a professor in Archaeology. I did my BA in Viterbo (2005), Erasmus in Sevilla, specialization in Archaeology again in Viterbo (2007), Master (2009) and Ph.D. in History in Granada (2013). When, after gaining my Ph.D., I felt that my time in Granada had come and I couldn’t grow more there, I started looking for a post-doc position.
Archaeology is a tough field: scholarships are few, competition is tough, Spain was in recession and Italian universities are run by local landlords — locally called baroni — that would (almost) never take on board anyone who hasn’t proven to be their faithful servant. If I wanted to progress, I had no other option than moving again and going further. I started sending post-doc applications all over the world, literally. I applied everywhere, including Australia, UK, US, Botswana, Egypt, Japan and Qatar. I got a lot of rejections, 42 to be precise, but I just kept going, because I had established that 100 rejections in a row would be a statistically significant number to throw in the towel.
One day that summer something unexpected happened. I received a letter with MIT logo on top of it: I had been appointed for the post-doc fellowship that I desired the most.
As soon as, I stepped onto the MIT campus in the fall of 2013, a bazillion new stimuli blew my mind. I loved all those kinds of crazy, weird and ambitious projects and I fell in love. All of a sudden I decided that my archaeological academic career could go to hell and that I wanted to be part of that world so badly.
Now I was the only archaeologist at MIT and I wasn’t as tech savvy as my fellow colleagues. I had to find my niche and it wasn’t obvious what that would be. Instead of burying myself inside a library to study Islamic Architecture (as I would have been supposed to do), I started following compulsively courses and lectures about Technology, Big Data, Social Physics, Smart Cities, Electric Grids, Media and Fabrication Ventures to name a few.
I discovered that my archaeological method of reasoning (a mix of evidential paradigm approach to human societies that results from a cross-pollinated adaptation of several methodologies borrowed by an almost endless list of disciplines) gave me a good edge when it came to understanding social problems. I discovered that I was a Digital Humanist and that my job could be bridging technology and humanities. I decided that I would challenge my assumptions at the first occasion.
In April 2014, I moved to Konstanz (Germany) to start a Marie Curie post-doc fellowship with a project in Archaeology, but the occasion that I was waiting for arrived quickly.
In June 2014, I applied and succeeded together with Roberta (Pellegrino) and Federico (Papa), two of my best friends from school, at the Telecom Italia’s business ideas competition. Our crazy project was building a web tool that would help billions of people (the three of us included) to write better and with more confidence in English. Roberta baptized the project Ludwig, after Wittgenstein, father of the Philosophy of Language and source of inspiration for our project. In July, we incorporated the company. By November 2014, thanks to the great team we put together with Francesco (Giacalone), Ciccio (Aronica) and Salvo (Monello), we had our first prototype of Ludwig.
In 2015 I pushed mobility to the limit. I lived in three places at the same time: I had my partner in Bergamo (near Milan), my job in Konstanz and my company in Sicily. To manage such a mess in 2015 I drove more than 80k kilometers and took more than 50 flights. I was working on my research during most the day and at Ludwig the rest of the time (sometimes at the same time). The whole year I never slept in the same bed for more than 4 nights in a row. It was painful but rewarding.
In the meantime, Ludwig kept growing as well as the time I had to invest on it. We publicly released Ludwig on February 8, 2016; the first month we had 3.000 users, 12 months later that number had grown to 30.000, today (June 2017) we are counting 400.000 monthly active users. Such results are even bigger if you consider that we only spent a few bucks on marketing. Ludwig is not a sustainable business yet, but we are on the right track.
This is my story in a nutshell, or at least some bits and pieces of it. It’s all about mobility, but I can’t tell you yet that I moved in the right direction. Some think that I threw my academic career in the bin, others that I made the right decisions. Personally, I don’t care where this new entrepreneurial path will lead me, I have no regrets: the journey is exciting and I am learning a lot.
CEO @ Ludwig SRLS