The Precog Amplification

The summer break after graduation is when one realizes that IIIT has changed their life forever. It’s too soon to say whether it’s for the good or bad, but “sitting idle”, “not learning”, or “not chasing something new” become the biggest worries of life. Fear not, the bouts of peaceful wondering (and guilt-free procrastination) catch up soon, but for me it was the former set of feelings that saw me hunting for something to do in the summer.

I got a glimpse of what working at Precog would be like during PK’s DHCS course that I took in my final semester. It was meant to be a light course that undergraduate students crave for in their final lap, rightfully devoting the residual time appeasing their friends before the great dispersion. Ironically enough, it turned out to be anything but light, though still served the purpose of letting me have a great time with my friends. BBI (Building Better Interfaces), the conclusive project showcase, was almost like a start-up convention on steroids with students going to unfathomable lengths – pitching their projects and getting validation on their design process from practically everyone on campus. It’s difficult to forget a course such as this where you have witnessed banner wars, basketball challenges, beer pong and simply students going all-out on their projects. The enthusiasm was contagious and getting involved with Precog over the summer definitely seemed like an option to consider. Despite the fact that the domain of social {computing, networks, systems} was completely alien to me, I was incredibly lucky to make it through as a summer RA (maybe I just rode along on our cool DHCS course project, Fettle).

Building Better Interfaces 2016
Building Better Interfaces 2016

The following month, I started at Precog on a development project alongside a bunch of enthusiastic interns. During the first few weeks, as I familiarized myself with the domain of social media analytics, I found myself get attracted towards a particular thread. Given the rapid rate at which media content is growing on social media (~2000 images per second!), it was a question that often found its way into discussions  – how can we summarize this enormous dataset of social media images and make it more succinct and browsable? Having a background in Vision and an inclination towards research I found a certain affinity towards this problem and I shared my intent to work on this idea with Sonal, another RA at Precog who had just wrapped up one of her own projects (and happened to be looking for a new problem to work on. What luck, right?).

People@Precog Summer 2016
People@Precog Summer 2016

sometimes having the right answer is less important than seeing behind someone’s eyes why the question had to be asked – source

As both of us delved into conducting a high-level literature survey, we found that even though image data set summarization is a well-researched problem, in the context of social media data it is almost unexplored. I was all in for pitching the idea to PK right that moment, but Sonal, the more seasoned Precoger, advised against it and proposed for preparing a more polished case for the problem, one that would more eloquently bring out some exciting use cases. This was the first time I got introduced to the concept of making people excited about your research  and it starts with your PI itself. The first question PK would ask is “how do I sell this?”, which would encapsulate the other fundamental questions, “who are we helping?”, “do they need our help” and “how can we help?” (in that order). As brutal and business oriented the line of questioning would seem, I could appreciate the intent behind it. It was not meant as a discouragement of open ideas but instead as a first-round validation of how well the involved people are able to make a case that the idea is worth pursuing. This constant reinforcement that the job of a researcher entails being an effective communicator and convincing an audience that the problem is worth solving was something very unique to PK. Once we had this part out of the way over the many sync-up sessions, the ecosystem was made extremely conducive towards carrying out the required research work. Instead of narrating the experience any further, I’d rather break the rest of it down into more consumable nuggets –

  1. The secret to all material success is self-discipline and grit – Be it your grades, getting an internship, an admit, building a project, coding a hack, or writing a research paper. If you can’t invest the required time and effort, it is wrong to expect a meaningful outcome. Yeah, you may get lucky once in awhile, but as Deadpool says “luck isn’t a superpower”. The 80 hour highly-organized work weeks at Precog, make sure that there is minimal dependence on luck. Keeping up with the expected commitment, Sonal and I continued working on our submission even after our RAship was over and saw it getting accepted to ACM Multimedia (you can read about how we approached our summarization problem and created #VisualHashtags here). This was one of the most rewarding experiences and only Sonal will remember burning all our stipend on Starbucks coffee, feeling guilty about constantly overloading their free wifi.
  2. As for non-material success, it is empathy and gratitude – Academia is a very competitive domain and one where no matter how much you accomplish, self-doubt comes in plenty. Peer-review doesn’t stay limited to academic manuscripts and becomes a part of everyday life. It becomes important to support your colleagues in their effort because with so much competence around it is often that one starts getting really hard on themselves. Precog is one place where you would always find someone or the other to celebrate something as small as a midnight bugfix with. You would have to be seriously off the grid if you haven’t seen PK leading from the front, encouraging and taking special pride in bragging about his students and their work.
  3. Diplomacy isn’t really a treasured asset in a research lab – The lab is devoid of any echo chambers because there are just so many strong voices. The senior most PhDs and fresh interns alike, everyone enjoys open channels of communication and get to navigate their journey at the lab. It was this environment that allowed me to switch projects with little friction and pursue a new idea during the middle of my tenure. It would be safe to say that with everyone here being absolutely blunt about their work and also with their feedback, I have started to adore conference peer reviewers (just kidding). The many reviews and rebuttals from Prateek, Niharika, Srishti, and Anupama greatly strengthened our ACMMM submission. (On a side note, I do think I owe an apology to Anupama for not being so server savvy at the time!)
  4. Collaboration is equally important as individual brilliance – Working in the domain of Collaborative Cognition, I can vouch for the fact that collective intelligence trumps individual effort in more ways than just performance (Spoiler Alert: Avengers: Infinity War is an exception). An expert in one domain need not be an expert in another, and that is how it should be. At Precog I learned that it’s a big fallacy that one skill is better than the other. It may be more valued than the rest in a given context, but then it’s a matter of finding a match. What matters is being a master of that skill. The knowledge sharing that happens when different people, each with their own niche, work together leads to diverse perspectives and hence, exciting prospects. Such collaboration is common to most projects at Precog; even including our work on #VisualHashtags, where we had AVS and PK, two experts in their respective fields, collectively advising us on our research problem.
  5. If something doesn’t make you anxious, is it really worth doing? – It is evident that people at Precog go places. Besides the qualification and merit gained at the lab, this success rate is because of the step-outside-the-comfort-zone attitude inculcated by PK. The bottom line is – a bunch of rejection emails in your inbox is much better than having only million dollar cheques from the Prince of Nigeria. Last year, I took the leap and applied for a few graduate programs in my area of interest – and to my delight received an admit to the Masters of Science in Robotics Program at CMU. As I start on this new endeavor this fall, PK being an alumnus at the same university makes it even more special – I am sure his mentorship and my association with Precog will continue in some form or the other.
People@Precog Farewell 2018
People@Precog Farewell 2018

Though my stint at the lab has been shorter than most, my blog entry and learning has been not. So, TL;DR: Precog is definitely a place to spend time at if you are remotely interested in rising from being mere nodes in a social system to being its philosophers and problem solvers. The line of research is highly interdisciplinary (Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Data Mining, HCI, Social Computing, Privacy and Security) and if you look around the projects here, you are bound to find something of your interest. It has everything to offer, from savvy GPUs to savvier researchers, and from cool projects to cooler friends. If you are ready to put in the hours, it’s an investment you won’t regret.

Chi Square Tests, Calendar Events and Cake : A Three Act Precog Tale

Testimonials

Where do stories begin? With that suitably philosophical opener, I begin my Precog story. Did mine begin when I joined IIIT Delhi for a Masters? Or when I joined Precog for an Independent Project? I think my Precog journey started somewhere between the two, kickstarted by this post on Quora. In my first semester at IIIT Delhi, I didn’t know which area I wanted to work in. Having read Prof Ben Y Zhao’s glowing praise of Prof PK, I decided to take the ‘Privacy and Security on Online Social Media’ course in the hope that I would make an impression on PK and get an opportunity to work with him. I managed to do that and was offered an IP with him and assigned to work with (now Dr.) Niharika Sachdeva on a portion of her Ph.D. work. What followed has roughly three dimensions.

Act 1. Chi-Square Tests: the importance of using the right features

“Why do you want to take this approach?”. “Why do you think this method will work?”. “How do we make this system better?”. At Precog I have been bombarded with these questions and their ilk. Precogs take their work very seriously, which is not a wonder when you see the quantity and quality of papers, theses, and systems being churned out. What is not obvious is the sheer depth in which the problems are studied. Precogs are involved in high-quality research that draws from multiple areas such as Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, and Data Mining and contributes to further research in HCI, Social Computing and, Privacy and Security. Lab members, especially the Ph.D. students (‘pillars’ as PK aptly calls them), know a multitude of fields. Every research statement is broken down into subparts and rigorously understood leading to the Precog maxim, “You should be able to defend and justify what you’ve done.”

The problems are dissected not only by the person helming the project, but also other members of the lab. There are dedicated weekly slots when the lab collectively pours over each project to provide feedback and suggest improvements. Needless to say, with a setup as cooperative as this, help is always at hand. Not only is the lab full of bright minds but the culture fostered in Precog ensures that they come with attentive ears and eager responses. Another thing that has never ceased to surprise is how much people know about a project they are not even directly involved in. This is a testament to the open communication, and happy-to-help attitude Precogs have bolstered through forums where lab members can ask questions, offer advice and even post potential opportunities.

On a personal note, I was involved in a few projects here and have had the opportunity (privilege really) to work with numerous lab members. I have learned from them far more than any textbook could ever teach me, not least because they are extremely smart and excellent teachers but also because they are generous with sharing their know-how. Special shoutout to Anupama Aggarwal who mentored me throughout my Master’s thesis and taught me how to approach problems, frame research questions and finally go about solving them. (And not to mention for putting up with my numerous shenanigans and being patient with me.) Working with my mentors as well as seeing other lab members flourish made me understand the importance of mentorship in research life. And even if I didn’t work with the other members on a specific project, I can honestly say that each and every one of them has somehow or the other helped me become a better researcher either by answering my questions, brainstorming with me or providing technical help. On that note of Precogs being fiercely intelligent but surprisingly helpful, ends act one. Remember, they’re the people you call to save your skin if you get into a sticky place when it comes to work (and I can testify to this because I have).

Anupama’s comments on polishing my defense talk: Precogs have your back

Act 2. Calendar events: Organization is key

This brings us to the next dimension of the Precog Story. After our first email conversation, PK told me to meet him and to send him a calendar event for the same. Unfortunately, back then I was (even more) technically challenged (than I am now) and had to do some serious googling to see what a ‘calendar event’ is and how one sends those. After two years at Precog, I can confidently say that I can even send one in my sleep. Precog operates at enterprise level of efficiency, allowing us to attain higher productivity. PK also keeps reminding us of productivity hacks now and then, and best of all, leads by example by practicing them himself. Be it a regular schedule of meetings, one-on-one sessions or group meetings, the regularity is enormously helpful, especially when you’re stuck.

The lack of bureaucracy in getting organizational things done is frankly wondrous. It would be a failure not to mention the meticulous focus with which PK approaches problem, both research and otherwise, and inspires other lab members to follow suit. Precogs have ironed out kinks that I thought were impossible to untangle and PK himself has helped us manage obstacles with ease.

Borrowing again from personal experience, I would like to talk about my thesis defense. The entire lab pitched in to help with numerous practice talks as well as organizational assistance. They ensured that every component of the defense ran smoothly, allowing me to focus on just the work itself. Precogs not only embody the philosophy of ‘work smarter’ but also that ‘to cut down a tree in five minutes, spend three minutes sharpening your axe.’ Essentially they’re the people you call when you need things done and done well.

Happy faces after my glitch-free-Thesis-Defense

Act 3. Cake: The glue (frosting) that binds

And finally, we come to act three. I can confidently make the claim that Precog consumes more capita cake than any other group at IIIT Delhi, backed up by some hand-wavy, back-of-the-envelope calculations. It’s a metaphor for the celebrations we have here. There’s cake on birthdays and milestones, going out and celebrating during Precog Anniversaries, and the numerous socials where there’s an excess of food and laughter. The socializing not only act as a stress buster for the discouraged and an icebreaker for the uninitiated, but it also helps us forge bonds that (I hope) will live a lifetime.

Parties’R’us

Celebrations aside, these are people who will never fail to lift your spirits. Even when they’re scolding you, you don’t mind, because you know it comes from a place of concern. Without resorting to heavily sentimental cliches, I’d like to think that the lab is comprised of people who will always be your well-wishers, who will always want to see you do well and who will always strive to help you become not only a better researcher but also a better version of yourself. Essentially they’re the people you call if you want to have a good time, or alternatively if you’re in need of some cheerleading (Trust me, I’ve abused the both privileges far too often.)

The past few years have taught me things that will stay with me a lifetime. At Precog and because of PK, I’ve learned something new every day. You might think this is a figment of my imagination and exaggeration, but you’d be wrong. I know this because some time in the middle of my Precog tenure, I finally became organized and started maintaining a TIL (‘Today I Learned,’ which I also incidentally learned about in Precog) diary. Most of its pages are full of research tidbits (do you know about the “Majority Illusion”?), some of them have productivity hacks (classify tasks), but the best entries contain the sticky notes my Precog friends wrote for me (I’m not sharing those, sorry, come work here and get your own!).