Anne-Marie Kermarrec, for a personalized and privacy-friendly web

From theory to practice, Anne-Marie Kermarrec's research on peer-to-peer computing systems led this Inria research director to set up her company dedicated to online personalisation services and predictive marketing. The European ERC grant she received in 2008 for her Gossple project gave a tremendous boost to her research, which was taken all the way to application, thanks to a second ERC "proof of concept" grant in 2013.
Montage d'après une photo d'Anne-Marie Kermarrec ©Inria / C. Lebedinsky

Anne-Marie Kermarrec is passionate about the functioning of distributed computer systems, which are systems that run simultaneously on several machines that collaborate with each other. Most of today's computer systems are distributed, and structured in two ways. One is a centralised operation, as in the cloud, where one machine centralises the work and distributes it to others. "This can be a problem when you go to a large scale," explains Anne-Marie Kermarrec. She makes the comparison with a restaurant: if a waiter distributes the plates to a small number of customers, it is quite simple. When the number of customers increases, the waiter is overwhelmed! The second possible structure for a computer system, which is the one that Anne-Marie Kermarrec has put at the heart of her work, is a "peer to peer" operation, in which the work is decentralised. If we return to the comparison with a restaurant, each machine would in this case be both a server and a client. So when the number of customers increases, the number of servers increases too! This calls for other reasoning and other ways of sharing information.

With the Gossple project, Anne-Marie Kermarrec, Inria research director and member of the ASAP team, shared by Inria and IRISA, worked on peer-to-peer personalisation services.

"I was thinking about the problem of people doing a niche search, a very specific service on a search engine. It was a problem I was facing myself in finding childcare solutions for my children. When I started Gossple in 2008, web personalisation or Google search suggestions didn't exist yet.

Peer-to-peer seemed to him an interesting avenue, offering on the one hand an advantage for scaling up and on the other hand a better respect of privacy. Personalisation on the Internet requires a large amount of personal data, and peer-to-peer technology makes it possible to distribute the information rather than entrusting it entirely to a web giant. "No machine has all the information, so this is a major asset for privacy," she says.

From 2008 to 2013, when she was head of a research team at Inria Rennes, Anne-Marie Kermarrec worked with eight post-doctoral students, funded or co-funded by the ERC, and two post-doctoral students, and was able to develop collaborations with the University of Lancaster and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). "The ERC grant is a very favourable instrument for opening up and advancing research. The funding has also given visibility to her work, and triggered spin-offs for the future. She has indeed obtained new recognitions, such as the prestigious Google Focused Award in 2013 for her WebAlterEGo project, in collaboration with EPFL. In 2016, she was the first woman in France to be awarded the title of ACM Fellow by the largest learned society in computer science (Association for Computing Machinery).

"Today, I remember two particularly significant events in my professional life: my time at Microsoft Research and the ERC."

A second ERC grant and a company creation

At the end of the Gossple project in 2013, the researcher's results made her imagine applications. "The subject was pioneering and I thought I had something in my hands that could be of interest beyond the academic circle. So she embarked on a new ERC-funded project, a 'proof of concept' called AllYours. Limited to one year, this funding was used to hire an engineer to develop the research results into a prototype algorithm capable of being scaled up for recommendations. "This was the beta version of Mediego", the company that Anne-Marie Kermarrec created in 2015 and still runs today.

Created through a licensing agreement with Inria, Mediego uses algorithms from Gossple and AllYours to provide online personalisation and predictive marketing services. The system, which is easy to install, provides personalised recommendations for each visitor. It uses the user's browsing history to suggest relevant content, enabling businesses to improve their site visits and conversion rates for e-commerce sites. "We make it possible for every company to do personalisation without having the clout of a big company like Amazon. The start-up's development is already marked by success. In 2015, Mediego won the i-LAB competition run by the Ministry of Research (MENESR) and Bpifrance, which aims to detect and support the most innovative French technology start-up projects.