Khmer Zero

The Preservation of Khmer Zero

“The invention of numbers is one of the greatest abstractions the human mind has ever achieved.” –Amir Aczel

It was almost a month since my grandmother passed on. I was trying to climb back into the career and the life I once knew. My first instinct was to sign up for a book talk. It wasn’t hard to find such events. After all, I was in a city in which every two blocks there was a school or university of some sort, street corners filled with ghosts of drunken authors like Edgar Allen Poe, and cafes meant for eavesdropping on intellectual chit-chat and witty repartee.

I remember as if it were yesterday how I fell into my soul imperative! It was an uneventful morning, June 28th, 2016, when I hopped on the train and headed into Boston. The name of the event was very enticing: “Causality Crisis: Forget Big Data, Get the Right Data”. I was having a career causality crisis of my own and I needed time away from grieving my grandmother’s death. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether I wanted to go back to the career where my colleagues and I ruminated over the same data problems sitting in the same position 12 hours a day. To be fair, I once had the “what and why” crisis (aka, causality crisis). But as I’ve gotten older, it has become more of the “how… wait, what now?” In my mind, I heard my grandma’s nagging voice say, “Age doesn’t make you wiser- your old body just forces you to slow down so you have no option but to pause and reflect.”

With that in mind, I swallowed my personal but temporary internal causality crisis and mustered the strength to attend a book talk with the thought that I was going to be the only woman in the room and likely the only guest who had not graduated from an Ivy league school. My only consolation: I entered the data world before the term “big data” was even coined. I wondered if I would ever gain real insight into people in social settings. How could I meet the ‘who invited you’s?’ in their eyes… Another anxiety attack; breathe, Michaylah. I thought, “Forget it! You were never a people person, anyway- you are better with machines.”

My anxiety subsided as my thoughts turned to the massive banking machines I used to work on. They were our “babies”; they relied on my team’s questions and reasoning. Yet even with access to all the data in the world, I needed to remember to approach problems from a human perspective (even if interacting with other human beings scared me to death). I finally arrived at South Station, Boston. As I hopped off the train, my final thought was, “Enough! I will be a great advocate for my machine babies.” I knew I’d be back in NYC soon and I would probably never get the chance to hear a talk by a Senior Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation in collaboration with Harvard Business School.

I enjoyed my new-found knowledge and delighted to be productive for a change. I definitely fed my curiosity for the day. Now the fun part, cocktails! One of only three women attendees approached and greeted me. Smiling widely, she introduced herself and asked what I thought of the talk and workshop. Being, I felt, the least smart person in the room, I said what normal, cool people say: “It was interesting!” She asked, “Where are you from again?” I hesitated a bit but said, “I was born in Thailand, but I’m not Thai. I am a proud Khmer.” She said, “Ah! Have you read Finding Zero by Professor Amir Azcel?” Who is this woman? I wondered. Now on my third glass of wine, I’d forgotten her name, so I just nodded my head and smiled politely. She talked up Amir Azcel, finally admitting to being or knowing a faculty member at UMass/Boston. She went on about the pure form of the numeral zero, that it could have only originated in the East, quite possibly in Southeast Asia, according to the book. Then she mentioned something that stopped me: Professor Amir Azcel had passed away 6 months earlier. That killed my buzz and I quietly retreated from the small talk. Alone in another corner of the room, I reflected on why we do what we do; are we taking the “blue pill”? Will we ever know the true story of how we got these numbers, and from where? And I thought, too, we keep answering the “what” questions but forget the “why”. Curious? Watch Amir Azcel’s “Finding Zero” talk at Google.

On my ride home, I Googled the timeline: I had been on my own journey of finding zero and realized Professor Azcel died several months after he had re-located zero on the k-127 Steele. With the foundation dedicated to Khmer Zero that he’d left behind, I became fascinated by zero: a number shrouded in so many mysteries. My research eventually led me to discover a project that took a massive LIDAR scans of the Angkor Wat temple and near vicinity. It was found that the Khmer empire cleared thousands of acres of forest, diverted river and produced a water system, centuries ahead of its time. I fell in love with my ancestry all over again.

oh, the desperate desire to become one with space —Jayavarman

Inspired by the Khmer Zero, architecture, and water system, I re-designed my career trajectory. As you can sense by now, I’m an archi-techie. (I am not alone: actually… there is a meetup for archi-techies!) Data, construction technology and architectural planning led me to explore industrial control systems on top of other systems. Witnessing fully-driverless tech at an advanced testing stage inspired me to see many possibilities for using driverless tech and data for social good. Partially automated technology has been around for the last few years. But the excitement I feel is about how these partially automated technologies will come together in planning future cities. As an industrial IoT engineer, not as a data scientist, my job will entail both software and hardware. I will get to see the first wave of 5G, quantum computing, edge computing, active learning (no longer deep learning) and, like a giant Rubik’s cube, large industrial control systems overlapping one another.

And my technological utopia will be this giant calculator we call our city. Like the Khmer empire, my ancestors found ways to make a thriving home for almost 800,000 people. My challenge, as I see it now, is to make a safe and convenient home for 8 million New Yorkers.

My final why? To quote my grandmother, Sreng Soeun Nathavie: “All comes from nothing and all will return to nothing. So, live well.”

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