The Journey Known as Precog

I was interested in Precog long before Precog was interested in me. Ever before I joined IIIT-Delhi, I had an innate fascination with the field of Security – especially how it affected us all in the digital age. So imagine my delight when I found out that IIIT-Delhi had an entire centre dedicated to Security, a.k.a, CERC (Cybersecurity Education and Research Centre). Among the several research groups that formed CERC, one of them was Precog.

What interested me most about Precog was its focus on security and privacy, especially in the context of online social media. To me this seemed like an issue which was of vital importance, especially given the prevalence of social media, but one that not enough of us thought about. The second thing that caught my eye was the person behind the creation of Precog. Professor Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, as he’s known to no one at all, is the enigma who brought the concept of Precog to life. PK, as he likes to be called, is one of the coolest people on campus, or so our seniors had informed us. Now, having worked with him and having taken nearly all of his classes, I can safely vouch for this fact. PK is unequivocally one of the best professors I’ve had the fortune of learning from.

Precog’s 6th anniversary celebrations!

Instead of making this blog post about the work that I did at Precog, or the work that Precog does in general, I’d like to focus on the philosophy behind Precog, and what makes this research group tick. First and foremost, Precog is like an extended family. People here like to help each other out. And I don’t say that lightly, they really do! We are encouraged to make use of each others expertise, rather than remain confined in the silos of our individual projects. What really enables this sort of collaboration is the fact that there is no formal hierarchy in the group. Free of the burden of labels such as ‘senior/junior’ or ‘undergrad/grad’ everyone is able to mingle freely with each other. This in my opinion truly brings out the best of each person in the group.

Secondly, I’d be remiss to not mention the influence of Professor Randy Pausch and his philosophy on our group (Here’s an intro for the uninitiated).

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”

These words were etched in my memory from the day I read The Last Lecture, and are the same words that hang on a picture on the fourth floor where Precog is located. PK in fact likes to share this quote in the very first class of all of his courses. It is a testament to how seriously, these words and Randy’s philosophy, are taken at Precog. I think all of us in Precog can thank Randy for the motivation to keep on going, no matter how tough it got.

Another valuable lesson for me that got reinforced at Precog, was of steady iteration. We as a group deliberately try and make progress in small and consistent steps, rather than making huge leaps in one go. This ideology has personally helped me streamline my work process and achieve my goals with great consistency. Keeping this idea in mind, we have weekly meetings whose sole purpose is to get everyone to give updates on their work. This is beneficial in many ways since everyone in the group is kept abreast of each other’s work, and everyone in the group gets the chance to weigh in on projects other than their own and give suggestions that may be useful in that project.

Lastly, the great thing about Precog is that it truly embodies the “Work hard, Play hard” attitude. When we work, then all our time and attention is focused on the task at hand. But from time to time, Precog organises outings for the entire group – ranging from going to eat, bowling, playing games, having competitions or just hanging out. For those who say that nerds don’t know how to have fun, I’d like to point you to Precog. Precog is a group that is very capable of having some good old fun.

Graduating Precogs with PK. Celebrating before everyone heads off to grad school!

I’ve learnt a great deal in my four years at IIIT-Delhi. Many different people have given me lessons that I will always cherish and remember. Precog is definitely one of them. I owe a great deal of my success to all of these people who have helped me become the person I am. So now, as I embark on my next great adventure – graduate school at the University of Cambridge, I just have to say that I will truly miss all of this: the Whatsup sessions, Deepdives, Brainstorming Meetings, Precog Socials, and the people. But one thing I can confidently say is that I am Precoger for life, and the work ethic that I’ve learnt here will always remain with me.

To all my juniors, I present this piece of advice – take one of PK’s classes, work with Precog on a project. In the end, you will be glad that you did.

Yashovardhan Sharma, signing off.

Precog: The Quintessential Group

As curtains drew on the summer vacations of 2016, I was already planning on doing something constructive during my next summers. My mentor at IIT Kharagpur sent me a circular about an internship opportunity at a research lab in IIIT-Delhi. This is how I first got to know about professor Ponnurangam Kumaraguru and this supercool group known as Precog! I found the work in conformity with my interests and applied at once. After some rigorous technical rounds and interviews, I was informed of my selection.

On 8th May 2017, I joined the group. Having got hostel accommodation at IIIT-Delhi itself, I got settled in my room. Soon after, PK invited me to discuss the project I would be working on. My work was to analyse online social platforms through data extraction and arrive at potential sources of privacy leakage. The project targeted matrimonial sites. I was thrilled about the work and got started with it. This was my first experience as being a part of a research group. The working environment at the lab was something I had never experienced before. It was so conducive to efficient working that many of us stayed there even past midnight! I was surrounded by diligent people passionate about their work. Their thought process to tackling a problem and diverse knowledge left me awestruck. Everyone was very humble. At Precog, we were like a big family, always ready to help out each other.

Semi-weekly group meetings called WhatsUp kept the group updated about everyone’s progress. Fortnightly sessions called Deep Dives were meant to share intricate details of the projects to the whole group. Questions were asked and feedback was given. Solutions were proposed to resolve deadlocks. In my opinion, this is the driving force of any group, the ability to work together! And Precog exemplifies this. At Precog, you are never alone solving a problem.

Then there were Hackathons. The whole group would sit together for the complete day and attack one problem. It was a brainstorming session which promoted teamwork and learning. At the end of the day, the team would have figured out some solution. There were paper critiques within the group. This helped me develop a habit of reading research papers.

A majority of people perceive researchers as “boring” who don’t enjoy life. I had a similar opinion. Being at Precog made me realise how inaccurate I was. We had regular get together called PrecogSocial where we ate delicious food, played mafia and other games, laughed, talked about just anything but work 😉 Exploring different places in Delhi could never have been so much fun. Back in the hostels, we even played Foosball and billiards. My initial perception was completely shattered. Researchers are fun loving people too. It’s just that when they work, they let themselves be completely immersed by it. PK sums this up as “Work hard. Play harder!” 😀

PK is a source of constant motivation. He held an informal session with the interns called ‘Intern Sabha’. This was meant to break the ice between him and the interns. He possesses the skill of the getting the best out of his students. His experience is invaluable to the group. He can foresee the problems that might arise in a project and guides accordingly. This is what drives Precog.

Precog taught me how to function as a group. This is extremely important when you strive to achieve something great. I will always cherish my time at Precog. I made a lot of friends, met awesome people. Comparing the versions of me pre and post the internship, I can say this with certainty: I am better learned. The positive atmosphere within the group inspires you. It stretches you to your limits. The attitude of the group is aptly described by a wall hanging picture frame just outside the lab which quotes Randy Pausch:

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

A picture of the group (mostly interns) at PK’s residence when he invited us for dinner:

Pages from a chapter called Precog

Back in 2014, when I came to know about Dr. PK, he was associated with Backpack, FindAWay, IDEA and other cool things that were going around the campus. It was very intriguing because I did not know much about him except that and the courses that he took. Little later, I found out about Precog, the research group that he has at IIITD. For me, Precog was this intimidating elite group that I would never be able to be a part of. But oh! how wrong was I and so are you if you ever felt that. Trust me, I am an insider. 😛

Fast forward to 2015, I saw many of my seniors going for HCI and very soon after that I realised the direction I wanted to do something in or be closely related to. Ever since, I fell in love more with the field so there was no question when DHCS was offered by Dr.PK in Winter 2016! I was more than excited, and that followed all through the course! Dr. PK is such an amazing professor. He makes sure that lectures are interactive, interesting, and there are surprise activities too – so giving you plenty of reasons to get up in the morning out of your bed. He builds up your assignments to your final project, and helps students get feedback from each other through critiques and himself too! He makes a lot of efforts to make sure students are learning hands on, which is commendable. It was one-of-a-kind course at IIITD for me, at least before I graduated.

I really wanted to work on a HCID project in my summers, and I started interacting with PK time to time regarding that. What is great about Dr. PK is that he is so helpful – he will guide you about interests and tell you about resources where you could find opportunities to even offering you to apply for an internship at Precog. I could not believe when he did that but a task and conversation later when I was in, I really could.

Being a part of Precog gives you a sense of belonging and the pillars (the scholars of the lab) help Dr.PK provide a learning ground for everyone in the lab! It is always fascinating to listen to him and if you can decide to implement on anything you learn from him, it has the potential to work wonders! There are several good things that are a part of the Precog culture. One of them is the mailing lists! Even though it has the potential of overshadowing all your other emails on some days, I think those discussions and looking at everything from a ‘what can I do with this’ eye makes you critical of the things that are going on around you. It is just one of the really helpful things I have learnt and I take forward from Precog to everywhere I go.

On certain days, the lab feels like a festival while on others you’ll see people working hard on their desks and in the CERC lounge – where even a peep will sound like screaming in a crowd. 😛 Now, I know I have painted a certain picture here, but believe me it is not all that rosy. Being a part of Precog is certainly an adventure in itself. You get to have a lot of fun but the people here, work so hard – sometimes it amazed me. I have had a stretch of time where I was afraid of working on a certain thing and I procrastinated. It only lead to guilt because I could not contribute to WhatsUp (the weekly update meetings of the whole group), which pushes you to finally try what you fear and get better.

If you have known Dr. PK for even a little time, you’ll know he loves to be vague 😛 To be honest, I felt off with that approach at first and I got intimidated but with time I have not only accepted that methodology but I am trying to apply it to my life currently. There are so many little things that you will learn from PK if you become a part of Precog or interact with him ever, little things that will go a long way if you closely listen. Precog is not just this but a lot more, something that can not be put to words in this post. The best part about all this is – for you precog will be totally different, it will be what you make of it.