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PTT Founder Ethan Tu

A 'Heavenly Dragon' Resurfaces


A 'Heavenly Dragon' Resurfaces

Source:Chien-Tong Wang

PTT was just the first stop on a magical software journey that has taken him to Microsoft, big data and even artificial intelligence. Currently working in the U.S., Ethan Tu is looking forward to the day when he harnesses Taiwan's "software power."



A 'Heavenly Dragon' Resurfaces

By Hsiang-yi Chang, Nai-hsing Pan
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 575 )

The term "villagers" (鄉民) coined by the 1994 Stephen Chow movie "Hail the Judge" has been widely adopted by Taiwan's netizens to describe themselves. These villagers have gained prominence in Taiwan through the show of Internet power displayed in the Sunflower Movement and the Kuomintang's resounding defeat in local elections last year. But the term also evokes Taiwan's biggest BBS (online bulletin board system): PTT.

During the dial-up Internet era, BBS was popular among university students around Taiwan and was the precursor of today's online forums. In the heyday of bulletin board systems, Taiwan had up to 400 BBS sites set up by students.

Today, pushed aside by the rise of fancier online forums and social networking sites such as Facebook, most BBS sites have become a nostalgic memories for Taiwanese born in the 1970s. But PTT has retained a vaunted position in the online chat world because of the anonymity and freedom of speech given users and the open discussion style that has been forged. An average of more than 500,000 people visit PTT daily, and during the height of the Sunflower Movement, a record-setting total of more than 100,000 visitors swarmed into a single forum in an hour.

What many do not know is that the legendary figure seen as the "creator god" in the eyes of villagers, PTT founder Ethan Tu (who as the first person to register a personal account on his BBS site used the handle "PTT"), now works as a software technology specialist with Microsoft's artificial intelligence R&D unit.

Over a more than two-decade journey from Taiwan to the United States, from a primitive 486 personal computer in his dorm room at National Taiwan University (NTU) to state-of-the-art artificial intelligence research at a software giant, Tu has shaped the history of the Internet in Taiwan and now has the chance to change people's lives.

'Open Participation'

Tu's black-rimmed glasses and bookish baby face contrast sharply with his prematurely graying hair. Having lived in the U.S. for many years, Tu is now described in Taiwanese Internet circles as a man of mystery, as "an elusive heavenly dragon that can be seen once a year at most."

In 1995, when he was a sophomore at NTU studying information engineering, Tu used the Linux operating system to set up PTT and became the site's first-generation webmaster.

At the time, many BBS webmasters with information engineering backgrounds took complete control of their sites, but Tu positioned PTT from day one as an "open  platform for the joint participation of users," and treated it as a virtual society. He recruited seniors and classmates studying other subjects and had them manage the site's legal issues, publicity, administration and system maintenance based on their specific area of expertise.

He also put the responsibility for moderating different forums in the hands of users, who could run for the post and cast votes to choose their preferred candidate. This was a complete departure from the typical top-down management model seen at other BBS websites.

"I was more partial to liberalism, especially at the time when Internet media was just getting started. I appreciated its free and accessible characteristics, and there was no way I was going to use traditional media methods to manage PTT," Tu recalls.

PTT's openness and relative freedom helped it stand out from among the 300 to 400 BBS sites that sprouted up at the time. In less than five years, it had defeated the biggest BBS site in Taiwan, which was managed by NTU, to become the most popular social media site in the Chinese-speaking world.

During that time, Tu worked nonstop. As a junior in college, he began collaborating with founder Chen Jen-ran on turning the first Taiwanese home-grown search engine into a web portal and was also made responsible for developing's virtual communities. Within three years, became one of Taiwan's three top web portals.

"Ethan Tu is a rare Taiwanese genius. He always had a lot of ideas, including concepts foreseeing today's Google and Facebook before they were created. Had he stayed in Taiwan and been given the appropriate support (from the government), it would have been incredible," says a director of a Taiwanese high-tech company who spoke on condition of anonymity because his company has business ties with Microsoft.

Low-profile Social Network Pioneer

Tu's extensive experience with Taiwan's social networking sites has helped forge his legendary status in NTU's Department of Computer Science and Information Engineering. Department chairman Chao Kun-mao often tells his students: "Don't just pay attention to Zuckerberg. Taiwan's Ethan Tu created PTT when he was your age."

Yet Tu never let the success of being a co-founder or core member of several Taiwanese Internet companies while in his 20s get to his head. In fact, sensing the limitations to his career development in Taiwan, he decided to head to the United States to pursue more challenging goals.

"I was interested in software and the Internet. At the time, I thought Taiwan was still oriented toward hardware while software development had gone as far as it could," Tu says. So he went to the U.S. as part of his continuing education because "I wanted to see what the best (software) people were doing."

In Search of a New Challenge

In 2005, Tu submitted applications to American universities and also sent resumes to major American companies and organizations. To his surprise, his strong background in information engineering caught the eye of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under the U.S. federal government. Rather than go to Stanford University, where he had been accepted, Tu headed to Maryland to help the NIH develop the world's most advanced cancer detection system.

It was not long, however, before Tu, who loves challenges, found himself dissatisfied with the job. "Because it was a public agency, people would go to the research center at 7 a.m. to check on the progress of projects and often end up heading home at 3 p.m. because there was nothing to do," recalls Tu with a laugh. "My wife couldn't help but ask me once why I was coming home so early. I said I came home to mow the lawn."

A year after joining the NIH, Tu rediscovered his original motivation for heading to the United States – to explore high-tech software applications at the highest levels – and decided to join Microsoft, the world's software technology leader at the time.

Tu has now worked at Microsoft for nine years. He started by helping design and develop Microsoft's "Bing" search engine and later joined MS Research, where he studied Big Data analytics and designed related applications. Three years ago, he got involved in the hottest field in the global IT industry – artificial intelligence – and was made responsible for the development of artificial intelligence interfaces in Asia (covering China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea).

The Next Step: Artificial Intelligence

Tu explains that based on existing technology, an artificial intelligence interface involves creating a virtual intelligent system that can communicate with human users through the analysis of huge amounts of information and the development of a rigorous user identification system (based on voice, expressions and gestures) .

The system will enable people in the future to use a glance or a voice command to direct our mobile phones, computers, electric appliances and even cars to perform tasks. Artificial intelligence interfaces may even act on their own to provide services based on users' needs, "kind of like a virtual maid," Tu says.

Developing interfaces for artificial intelligence has not been an area of priority for Taiwan's high-tech leaders, but Microsoft, Google, Apple and the world's major appliance brands see it as the technology most worth investing in over the next 10 years.

"Today, (American companies) have already realized that search engine and menu interfaces are no longer the best solutions," Tu says, explaining that based on his own experience, the United States has made major advances in artificial intelligence technology over the past two years. He believes that similar advances will lead the next technology revolution in the coming three to five years.

Taiwan, Tu says, needs to quickly latch on to the trend, retain its software talent, and do business with the rest of the world.

"In fact, over the past decade looking at Taiwan from the United States, I often feel that not much has changed. In the high-tech sector, hardware still trumps software, and controlling costs is a higher priority than doing R&D," Tu says in a heartfelt tone. In such an environment, talented software engineers have no choice but to do as he did and look for opportunities overseas.

"Taiwan actually has a lot of top-notch software talent dispersed around the world. I often wonder if we could bring the technology we've learned overseas and the trends we've seen back to Taiwan, but that would require the government and the private sector to really want to create the right environment. Otherwise, under the thinking that has prevailed in the past, we (software engineers) would inevitably be left to fend for ourselves," Tu says.

Whether Tu and several other top Taiwanese software development stars who have for years honed their arsenals in the U.S. will ever return home remains unknown. But what is clear is that Tu's "magical journey" in which he has constantly challenged limits has already put him at the forefront of Taiwan's software pioneers and demonstrated the ambition of Taiwanese tech people in creating new paths for the future. 

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier