How bookworm Barry Norton went from farming to forecasting the future of video tech

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Conor McMahon

Communications Associate

Milestone’s VP of Research talks about his youth in rural England, getting his first job at a record label, and moving from academia to commercial work.

Booksellers must love Barry Norton. Milestone’s Vice President of Research has a serious appetite for books, typically devouring 150 novels a year – the equivalent of three a week.

Annoyingly for the wannabe bookworm, there’s no big secret to how he does it. He doesn’t claim to be a speed-reader, but still has time to tend to the chili pepper plants and mushrooms he grows in his Østerbro apartment. He simply listens to an audiobook practically every time he moves, keeps an e-reader to hand for commutes, and dedicates his evenings to paging through his beloved paper books. “I definitely make a conscious effort to save time for reading,” he says, casually.

Now Barry has become a wordsmith himself with his first short story accepted for publication. Given that his day job involves dreaming about the future and exploring the possibilities of artificial intelligence, it may come as a surprise that Barry’s first efforts at fiction don’t venture into the territory of Arthur C Clarke. “Everybody assumes that I'll write science fiction,” says Barry. “I definitely do have it in mind to write a speculative fiction novel, but the short story that I have accepted for publication, and the next one submitted, are not like that at all.”

Barry’s debut story centers around a bus driver in Manchester, while his second piece is about a postal delivery worker battling a snowstorm. Inspiration comes from his upbringing in a tiny farming village in the North of England.

“My private school fees were paid by the government, but we were very much working class. My dad got his HGV [heavy goods vehicle] license when I started at secondary school, so he was a driver for most of my childhood. At the same time, my mum took over the post office, which was the only shop in the village,” says Barry. “There's definitely an autobiographical tinge to what I'm writing so far.”

In July, Barry was appointed VP of Research at Milestone, having joined the company in 2018 as Director of Research. As part of leading Milestone’s growing research department, the new role entrusts Barry with building the company’s collaboration with universities. “We have five PhD candidates at Aalborg University, as part of our Fundamental Research area, led by Prof. Kamal Nasrollahi (pictured below),” says Barry, referring to research concerning blue-sky thinking and hypothesis testing.

Alongside Fundamental Research, which also includes projects supported by national and European funding bodies, Barry oversees the Applied Research area – where research results are tested for their ability to create value in the market, together with customers and technology partners – and Intellectual Property. It’s not all desk-bound work.

“The way that machine learning works these days is often by gathering training data in the real world, so we sometimes have to go and gather video to train a model for an area,” says Barry. For example, in Brøndby, where Milestone is headquartered, student Research assistants have gone out in every weather condition to film the carparks and evaluate vehicle and license plate detection in different lighting conditions.

For Barry, the field of research is rewarding because it gives him the freedom to experiment and sometimes ‘fail fast’, which is a valid research result.

We're the part of the organization that's most allowed to fail, though ‘fail fast’ is a principle that we aim to encourage more generally. This makes success even sweeter because we're trying many things that no one can predict the success of, and indeed may be skeptical about. So when we get things to work, that's very rewarding.

Growing up

The eldest of three boys, Barry grew up in a Yorkshire village with fewer than 100 people. “My parents had a small holding, so we kept goats and chickens, and, in a way that turns out to be really compatible with Denmark, we had apple trees and pear trees, potatoes, rhubarb and all of this stuff that Danes love as well,” he says.

Working on the farm every summer, Barry got a big break in life at age 11 when he was given state assistance to attend a fee-charging ‘public school’ (which is what the British call their oldest private schools). “I was at school six days a week, wearing a suit and tie. The difference between that and the summer vacation of working on a sheep farm was stark.”

At age 15, Barry got his first job writing software for a record company called Peaceville in Dewsbury, England. A fan of tape trading and zines – where music cassettes and amateur magazines are swapped through the mail – Barry was keen to start his own niche publication and contacted the record label for an interview. Impressed by his computer skills, which came from hacking on his grandparents’ computers from the age of six, Peaceville invited the teenage Barry to create floppy disk-based demos, showcasing their music and graphics. “It wasn’t the most financially-lucrative post, but I was more than glad to be guest-listed for gigs, and receive white labels of new vinyl pressings,” he says.

Those computer skills came in handy later, while studying Software Engineering at the University of Sheffield; alongside his degree, Barry worked 35 hours a week for a software company. “I didn’t have much of a social life at the time,” he jokes.

Academic work

At the end of his bachelor’s degree, Barry took a short-term research role at the university, working with Daimler-Chrysler’s software research team in Berlin. Together with one of his professors at Sheffield, he secured funding to pursue a PhD in computer science and stayed there as a researcher for five years before moving to the Open University in Milton Keynes.

After completing his PhD, Barry worked as a post-doc researcher in Innsbruck, Austria and Karlsruhe, Germany before returning to England to take a position at the University of London.

Having collaborated as a researcher with Ontotext, a Bulgarian software company specializing in knowledge graph technology and semantic database engines, Barry exited academia to work with the Sofia-based company as their UK representative. Among Ontotext’s British clients were the BBC, the British Parliament and the British Museum, the last of which Barry later joined as Development Manager. Here, using funding provided by the Mellon Foundation, the UK Arts & Humanities Research Council, and Horizon 2020, Barry and his team worked on several cultural heritage research projects.

One of his favorite projects with the British Museum was a study of terracotta statues from Cyprus. “These statues, excavated in the 1800s, had often been broken into multiple pieces. Many parts had been brought to London, then variously bequested to the British Museum, to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Ashmolean in Oxford, and even to a number of public schools. The remaining may still be still back in the museum on Cyprus,” says Barry. “We were working with photographs, chemical analyses and 3D scans of all this material, to work out how we could put it all back together, at least virtually.”

Barry was then recruited by academic publishing giant Elsevier to work on graph data analytics, where enormous datasets concerning scientific and medical articles were studied to identity emerging areas of research that could be catered to into new journals. Together with the other members of Data Science for Analytics teams, he is co-author of an Elsevier patent on using GPUs (graphics processing units) for these graph partitioning tasks.

Then, in 2016, Brexit happened.

Moving to Denmark

Having pledged to move to a European country if Britain were to exit the EU, Barry began exploring opportunities on the continent. While Amsterdam and Berlin topped Barry’s short-list, his partner, Isabelle Augenstein, was offered a faculty position at the University of Copenhagen and the couple decided to move to Denmark.

Barry started working with the shipping giant Maersk as Head of Analytics Operations for Maersk Line, before being promoted to Head of Digital Platform for the whole Maersk Logistics group, building an analytics platform to aid the company’s digital transformation.

In 2018, he joined Milestone as Research Director. One of the main reasons he was attracted to the company was the opportunity to use GPUs for video processing and analytics, including deep learning. “It really appealed to me that Milestone was working closely with NVIDIA,” says Barry, referring to the leading manufacturer of GPUs. “I am pleased to have continued this collaboration in the function I have built it, and to have worked with other companies building technologies for neural network acceleration like Intel.”

When asked what further areas of interest he hopes to develop as the new VP of Research, Barry says he is particularly excited by behavioral analytics, including behavioral prediction and anomaly detection. For example, these techniques could be used in sports stadiums to identify potentially overpopulated areas, to assist with managing traffic flows, and, in a worst-case scenario, help with evacuation planning.

Video has got a huge role to play in that, but there are ethical considerations that must be researched alongside the technological possibilities. That’s why I’m proud to work for a company with an explicit commitment to the responsible use of technology.