Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A Look Back on 2017

Continuing the tradition of summarizing my year on this blog, here are some things of note from 2017.
  • I got tenure this year!  Somehow, even though my job is now about as secure as jobs get these days, I also find myself with a lot more work on my hands than ever before.  I realize it's in some sense self-imposed, but it doesn't really feel like it.  Yet I can't complain; I get to pursue exciting research of my own choosing and work with incredible colleagues and graduate students.
  • Steve Hanneke and I co-chaired ALT 2017, which was my first time chairing a conference.  We got lots of great submissions and ended up with what I consider a very strong program.  You can read about my experience here.
  • This year, I graduated two more fantastic Ph.D. students: Ádám Lelkes (jointly supervised with György Turán) defended in spring and is now at Google Research and Yi Huang defended in the summer and is now doing a postdoc at the University of Chicago.  In the spirit of the occasion, I've linked to their dissertations rather than their websites.
Left: me, Ádám, and György at Spring commencement.  Right: Yi and me at Fall commencement.
  • Li Wang, whose postdoc I hosted, became a tenure-track Assistant Professor at UT Arlington's math department! At UIC, we usually call it "mentoring" instead of "hosting," but Li needed no actual mentoring from me.  I simply had the pleasure of watching her carry out her ambitious research agenda and produce an array of impressive results.
  • AlphaZero, a more general and more advanced version of AlphaGo, beat out all other engines in a variety of other two-player games, including Stockfish at chess (and even AlphaGo at Go).  Its chess play feels much more "human" than that of other engines, and I've spent quite a bit of time just watching its games against Stockfish.  I never expected I'd be spending any significant time watching two computers play chess against each other, but here we are.  I'm posting one of these matches, below, for your enjoyment.
A video of AlphaZero putting Stockfish into a beautiful zugzwang.
On a related note, while it's clear deep learning has had and continues to have an impressive impact on the state of the art of AI, I'm curious to what extent these advances in gameplay are the deep learning classifier versus the Monte Carlo Tree Search.  In particular, I wonder how good would AlphaZero be if it combined MCTS with a different classifier?  Anyone who has something interesting to say on this point is welcome to leave a comment below.
  • Even though I know it's arbitrary, I can't help but notice when some numbers get a significant digit added in base 10.  This year, my Twitter followers surpassed 1000, and so did my citation count.  Actually these two numbers have been tracking each other rather closely ever since both became non-negligible. A coincidence? 
  • I got to see a total solar eclipse over the Grand Tetons and took a pretty nice picture of it.  The next one over the US will be in 2024, which is rather soon as far as these things go -- I highly recommend trying to see it if it's at all possible.  This essay pretty much gets the experience right from my perspective.
  • I've also blogged about this before, but incidents involving students and faculty across multiple universities trying to stifle speech and debate continue a troubling pattern for academia.  These have included a violent attack on Charles Murray and his faculty host at Middlebury, a bizarre tribunal at Wilfred Laurier of a TA named Lindsay Shepard, and The Evergreen State College descending into complete madness over Brett Weinstein's opposition to issues related to an "equity" proposal.  It's also unsurprising to me that these incidents are happening at the most liberal of universities where increasingly effete (or even often sympathetic) administrations are afraid or unwilling to stand up to some of their increasingly emboldened students.  Not all the news on this front is bad: I predict students at Claremont McKenna College will think twice before blockading a speaker again.
  • I have no new insights to add, but it seems worth nothing that Bitcoin prices have gone crazy.  I can say that at no point in time have I had any interest in buying or mining Bitcoin, and that hasn't changed. 
the price, in dollars, of 1 Bitcoin versus time
  • The "Me Too" movement exposed some very troubling things across many industries.  The machine learning community (and academia in general) is clearly not immune from these problems.  And we also need some institutional changes; the clearest among these is creating systems which can address harassment at gatherings like conferences, which operate outside the normal work/university setting.  I'm glad this is being taken seriously by our community, starting with a rethinking of the code of conduct NIPS, one of the main machine learning venues.
  • Finally, my department is hiring specifically in MCS.  Applications are accepted through 1/22, so it's still not too late to apply.  We have a strong and growing theory group!
Here's to an exciting and productive 2018!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

ALT 2017

I’ve just returned from the 28th International Conference on Algorithmic Learning Theory (ALT 2017), which was held in Kyoto, Japan.  The last time ALT was held in Japan was in 2007, exactly 10 years ago.  Back then, I was a second year grad student at my first ALT, and at one of my first conferences altogether.  Now, ten years later, I got to watch my Ph.D. student Mano Vikash present his first conference paper, and I was serving as program co-chair, together with Steve Hanneke.  What a difference 10 years makes!

a photo I took at Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto

Except for handling some last-minute duties concerning session chair assignments and minor issues with the online proceedings, there was little left for me and Steve to do at the actual conference. Once the conference started, the local organizers and general chair took over, and they kept things running smoothly.  But the experience of attending was still different for me.  By the time the conference started, I had read many of the papers and was at least a little familiar with the rest of them.  I also felt a strange sense of responsibility to go to every single talk, and I enjoyed doing this more than I expected.

Being PC chair was a lot of work, but it was quite gratifying.  I appreciate that Steve and I were able to work quite well together.  I’m thankful that so many amazing people agreed to serve on the PC and that our invited speakers readily agreed to come all the way to Japan.  I am thankful that we got many good submissions — more submitted papers than in any year since my first ALT a decade ago.  And I am especially grateful for the quality of the reviews; the PC had to handle more papers than usual, yet the reviews were careful and detailed, catching multiple bugs and providing valuable feedback to authors.  The resulting proceedings are online.

We also had two great invited speakers for ALT.  Sasha Raklin, among other things, gave some interesting results that I was not previously aware of at the intersection of Rademacher complexity and online learning.  Adam Kalai gave great and accessible talk on "fairness" and had a nice way to express various notions of fairness as loss functions. I must admit I’ve been skeptical of this area for a while, but chatting with Adam afterwards has made me less so.  

When blogging about conferences in the past, I discussed some of my favorite papers.  I don’t feel it would be especially appropriate for me to do so in this case, so I’ll just mention the paper for which the E. M. Gold student paper award was given to Tyler Dorhn, an undergraduate student at Yale.  In the paper, Dana Angluin and Tyler Dohrn showed that when equivalence queries are answered randomly, the expected query complexity of exact learning is drastically improved over when equivalence queries are answered adversarially.  In doing so, they introduced a nice notion called the "elimination graph" of a concept space.  It's a concept that I expect to have more applications.   And this is a problem I and others have informally thought about, so I’m glad to see progress in this area.

Finally, I’ll note that ALT has been going through some changes lately.  This year, in addition to more minor tweaks, we switched publication venues from Springer to PMLR (the new name for JMLR’s conference proceedings) in favor of open access, and we got rid of page limits.  More big changes are coming next year: ALT 2018 also will co-locate with AISTATS instead of DS next year, and PC co-chairs Mehryar Mohri and Karthik Sridharan have put out an ambitious call for papers with the goal of becoming the "best conference in algorithmic and theoretical machine learning."  (The co-location with AISTATS also means that the conference is moving from Fall to Spring, and papers are due in a week!)

Computational learning theory has two main conferences: COLT and ALT, with COLT being the larger of the two.  ALT has always had strong authors and PC members, but hadn’t grown in prestige and visibility like COLT.  My former postdoc host John Langford wrote, "ALT = 0.5 COLT." Yet, I’ve always appreciated ALT’s breadth and its resilience to various trends that change the theme of some other conferences almost yearly.  ALT grew this year, and I’m optimistic about its future. And my hope is that ALT can meet its new ambitions while retaining its friendly and open culture.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

My Small Part

I've watched with astonishment as multiple universities descended into insanity in the last couple years.  Both my almae matres were affected: Princeton's president catered to protesters who took over his office, and Yale students who organized protests where a college Master was cursed and yelled at were given "leadership" awards at graduation.  I don't doubt that students, including the ones protesting here, may have legitimate grievances, but these latest movements have been bullying in their tactics and misguided in their demands.  You can read the petition I signed onto in Princeton's case.

Woodrow Wilson (photo from, Princeton's most famous alumnus and a former Princeton president, was one of the targets of the protests at Princeton. Thankfully, he avoided having his name scraped off Princeton's School of Public and International Affairs.
But lately, the descent into madness seems to be accelerating. Charles Murray, who has been unfairly maligned as a eugenicist monster, came to Middlebury to deliver a lecture only to be shouted down and physically attacked, with the offending students barely receiving any punishment. Berkeley hasn't been able to host certain conservative speakers without violence breaking out. And very recently, Brett Weinstein, at Evergreen college has been literally hunted because he didn't think he should be asked to leave campus due to his race, and he is receiving no support from the administration. (Listen to this if you want to see how bad things have gotten.) 

In this post, I won't go into the reasons why I think things have gotten so out of control; I have some ideas, but I'm also dumbfounded.  I will say that these latest incidents are so obviously unacceptable that I figured that most university faculty would be on the side of free expression, but it seems I may be sadly mistaken about this.  Brett Weinstein reported that the vast majority of his colleagues who have spoken out on this issue are actually calling on him to be disciplined, and only one other Evergreen professor is willing to defend him publicly.  The protesters and many faculty even blame Weinstein for going on Fox News as the cause of the chaos that resulted on their campus in the aftermath.

So, as a university professor, I want to do my small part and publicly defend Brett Weinstein.  No group should feel entitled to ask any other group to leave campus, especially based on skin color or ethnicity.  Faculty should be able to express their opposition to such requests and to other bad policies without fear of being labeled racists. To me, it is clear that the organizers of some of these protest movements are the actual racists. And Brett Weinstein should be able to go on Fox News or any other forum to express his dismay at the situation.  Needless to say, I also condemn any efforts to silence Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, or the other people facing illiberal forces on college campuses.

It's time to stand up for free and spirited debate and for respectful discourse and common decency. If universities are to remain centers for inquiry and progress, we cannot afford to give these regressive movements another inch.