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 at 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!