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.

The Anatomy of a Precog Internship!

It all began in September 2016 when I saw a big informative picture (image below) in my Facebook feed. In big bold blue letters the picture said “Internship 2017” with Precog’s logo on the right side. I had heard a whole lot of awesome stuff about Precog from people in IIIT-D and didn’t think twice before applying. The selection process itself was quite rigorous and after a few interviews I got selected for an Internship at Precog in the summer of 2017!! Add to that the fact that PK told me I could join right when my semester gets over and my joy knew no bounds!

I distinctly remember my first meeting with the group was at 4 PM on 2nd December 2016. Introductions were shared and I got to meet my mentor Srishti Gupta. She told me all about the work going on at Precog and what all projects were on offer. Then came the difficult but cool part, I got to choose which project I want to work on! Given my interest and background in mathematics I chose a project which involved modelling the spread of information across online social networks. I worked throughout the month of December and the winter semester. In fact I got course credits for my work throughout December. My college’s faculty were intrigued to know the kind of work that I did in that period. To some disappointment our research on information flow did not reach a conclusive end. And here I realised another thing from Precog, getting feedback about your work and then striving ahead is something that’s part of the research cycle. Disappointment is meant to strengthen your desire to achieve more. Officially beginning my internship in June 2017, I worked on identifying malicious users using modern graph theory concepts across the humungous graph of an online social network. Part of the work cycle at Precog are the regular update meetings where one gets to learn about what others are working on and also get some help about issues anyone is facing. This accompanied by fortnightly sessions know as DeepDive which as the name goes, allow the team to get acquainted with all the projects at a more detailed level. The openness of the group is strengthened by the fact that anyone (even PK) can be reached out to for help. With such amazing ly versatile people working in a group, there’s very slim chance that you wouldn’t find help about something that you’re struggling with.

If by this line you’re thinking that Precog is all about work, work and just work, get ready for a change of thought. The regular get together is aptly named #PrecogSocial. There’s only one rule about this get together, don’t discuss work related stuff. And the location can vary from Barbeque Nation to PK’s own home. Yes you read that right, PK invited all of us to his house for a feast. Get together aside, the interesting part about #PrecogSocial was the stories and anecdotes that everybody shares. The jokes, the games, the food, all of it will be cherished for a long time. Sir/Ma’am are a thing of the past at Precog, in fact everybody insists calling them by their name. If you try to associate the common academic stereotypes with this group and it’s people, you’d fail miserably.

If you’re a hardware fanatic (I am too :p), you’d be even happier at Precog. Want to run a deep learning model and want the results fast? Why not, use one of the many Nvidia GTX 1080s. Want to run it even faster and feel the raw power of GPUs? Go ahead and use the Titan X Pascal, awarded to Precog specially by Nvidia. And even if you’re not the GPU type, one of the many high performance servers are at your disposal. This is backed up by really fast NAS servers for all your storage needs. Although I haven’t been able to use the GPUs till now because my work doesn’t entail their use, I wouldn’t miss any opportunity to play around with them.

The Precog experience has been absolutely amazing for me right from the beginning. There was no shred of doubt in my mind when I decided to continue my work here after the official internship period ended. As many Precog alums say, Precog is not just a research group, it is a family. A family consisting of people who are awesome at what they do simply because they absolutely love doing it. As the great Randy Pausch once said “Follow your passions, believe in karma, and you won’t have to chase your dreams, they will come to you.”

Here’s a picture of the team at Barbeque Nation for one of the #PrecogSocial

Precog: A Family Affair

Before joining IIIT-Delhi, my father and I sat together to go through the list of faculty members who would teach me. We were awed by them all but some names stood out, one being PK’s. I read about his achievements and was eager to enroll in one of his courses when I joined IIIT-Delhi. After completing my first year, I was presented with several domains within computer science which I did not know existed; I wanted to explore them all. During the same time, Backpack was a hot product which students and professors were gushing about. I was told that a few of PK’s students had created Backpack and my interest in working with PK increased. However, it wasn’t until my third year that I actually met him.

I enrolled for DHCS, a CSE course on Human-Computer Interaction — the first of its kind in India. I liked the work we did in the course and wanted to dig deeper into this domain. This led me to become a Precog intern in the Summer of 2016. I worked with Dr. Niharika Sachdeva (recently received her Ph.D. from the group) to analyse the satisfaction of citizens after police response to their complaints. I also evaluated the Android applications that the police had released for use by the people.

Pic: Precog Interns: Summer of 2016

My association with Precog and PK continued as my last year at IIITD rolled in. I took up a BTP, collaborating with another faculty member on campus — Professor Shriram Venkatraman — to study the social impacts of Killfie. I enjoyed the research immensely and learned more than I could ever hope to. I was given the freedom to work on a project I liked, making it more fun.

The culture at Precog is imbibed with working smart and partying hard. Regular socials (where everyone interacts with each other informally) ensure we know people from different projects, making Precog a research family rather than just a research group. The openness with which we greet each other (we can’t call anyone Sir/Ma’am, not the PhD scholars, not even PK himself) brings with it the comfort of familiarity I haven’t witnessed anywhere else. We have regular group meetings too, where everyone is encouraged to participate in the discourse, leading to a fresh set of eyes noticing something unique in the project.

At Precog, I met a group of people who were not defined by just what they did. Like the stars in a constellation, everyone had a different story to tell.

On Precog, PK (and everything else that fits between the two entities)

So, what is Precog? A research group, a culture, a lifestyle? At the risk of sounding unbelievably corny, I’m going to go ahead with the last one. But really, it was.  

Ever since we had arrived at IIIT-Delhi almost four years ago, Precog (along with Dr. PK) had been one of the most “heard about” groups over here. Some of our batch-mates had already started working for Find-A-Way and Backpack, while most of us were still trying to work on our skill-sets to even be able to think of doing the same somewhere down the line.

Fast forward to the summers before the 4th year, I finally thought that I had the skills, and more importantly, the motivation to apply to Precog. There was no other professor or group at IIIT-Delhi working in the domain of Natural Language Processing, something I was deeply interested in exploring at the time. Hence, this seemed like a natural choice. The applications for Precog are a task by themselves, requiring a complete statement of purpose (SoP) and everything. I spent quite a bit of time writing this, polishing my resume, and finally applied. Unfortunately, I didn’t get in. So why am I writing this blog? I don’t know, you’ve been Punked.

Kidding. I spent the summers doing other things, tried to fill up some possible holes in that SoP and my resume, and re-applied for the coming semester. This time, I got the instructions for a task which was a part of the selection process, followed by the interview with PK’s senior students, and finally one with PK himself. The reason I mention these steps is that I was completely awed by them when the process was happening. The task itself gave me an idea of the kind of work I might be doing later on, which was pretty cool. The interviews were rigorous and detailed, a step one couldn’t cross purely by hand-waving. Come the semester’s first week, and I was added to the core mailing list.

Now, this addition to the mailing list, is a blessing and curse all by itself. We used to get like 5 emails a day, and this was probably an inactive day. Found it slightly annoying then, miss it quite a bit now. So, while we cribbed about these emails on a regular basis, each of us knew on the inside how cool they were. They kept us in touch with the latest items related to data science and even computer science in general, kept us updated about what other work our peers at Precog were doing, and while all this seems trivial when stated like this, it was great in that it kept the blood flowing – it kept us regularly motivated.

Other such half-blessing-half-curse traditions include(d) the weekly “What’s Up Sessions” and the “Brainstorm (BM) Sessions”. In the former, we all gathered to discuss in a little more detail what everyone was .. well, up to. Again, I found these to be great because they sort of gave us the feeling that everyone cares about every project. Ideas for all projects were discussed by everyone, all opinions were taken into consideration. When a group was writing a paper, it was presented to and reviewed by everyone. This was probably one of the practices that I think is somewhat unique to Precog. As undergrads, we did not spend all our time working in the same space as the Ph.D students and the RAs, and hence, it was these sessions that helped us build rapports with other Precog members.

The mentorship was amazing as well. I joined the text-team with Indira Sen, Kushagra Singh and Nalin Gupta, with Indira mentoring us for the most parts – and I cannot thank her enough for being so unbelievably patient and understanding with everything. Apart from this, PK was completely supportive regarding well, everything – including other commitments (uni applications, exams, health, everything), and it’s really important to mention this because those took huge time chunks in our semesters. He also conducted a couple of sessions to help us with our SoPs for applications, which was pretty cool (apart from being crazily helpful, of course). We even got lucky enough to once get to interact with Dr. Hari Sundaram, a professor at UIUC.

One of my other interests at the time apart from NLP was Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), which interestingly stemmed from having taken one of PK’s courses in one of my earlier semesters. So, I along with three other batch-mates had decided to take part in a related competition. PK even guided us with that and provided us with constructive feedback for some of our work. Basically, the overall growth model was wholeheartedly supported, which was a fresh blessing.

Our presentation for the Designing Human-Centered Systems (DHCS) course project at BBI ’16

Also, great perks! Birthdays, Precog anniversaries, graduation, achievements (!), not a single occasion went by without a lot of activity on the mail threads and PK’s invites to the lab with sweet, sweet promises of ice-creams and cakes. Again, this probably sounds cheesy but it was these kind of activities that truly made me feel like I was a part of a family.

One such perk from Precog’s 6th birthday!

Overall, I think Precog has some great practices and systems set in place to ensure that all of us stay motivated to keep working hard, as well as have a bit of fun while we’re at it. I only have one regret – not joining early enough. So, a piece of unsolicited advice if you’re a student in your third, second or even first year – don’t hesitate in applying “early”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to publish anything in my relatively short duration here, but even then, the experience was nothing short of perfect and (needless to say) a critical part of my time at IIIT-Delhi and well, life.  

 

The Precog Journey

I had an inclination towards research ever since I joined IIIT-D. I admired my Seniors who got admits from the Best CS Universities of the world, which felt like the next milestone to achieve. Looking at the profiles of several of them, I realised that there was an eminent underlying force behind, that was PK! I was awestruck by the posts that PK used to do about the achievements of his students on Social Media.

I had done research in the Security domain during my first 2 years and Security in Social Media looked like a fascinating field to explore. I joined the DHCS course in the beginning of 2016, that’s when I got to interact with PK. His way of teaching is unique, and he instills an aura of enthusiasm and interest as he delivers lectures.  From him I got a new perspective to look and analyse the everyday interfaces.

I decided to apply for an Internship with Precog for the Summer of 2016. The interview was grilling and I kept my fingers crossed till the result was announced. After receiving acceptance from Precog I also received an Internship Offer from IBM Research Labs. I was faced with a dilemma, both being Great Research opportunities. I talked to PK and he offered me a part time internship with Precog.

I was excited to start working with the group. Anupama introduced me to the problem statement we were going to be working on, “Privacy Leaks through Browser Extensions”. I was thrilled to know that we were going to have a collaboration with Bimal Viswanath from Bell Labs. I had read his research papers before and was intrigued by his findings. Working with Precog feels like, you have been blessed with a network of the Top researchers across the globe with whom you can discuss, learn and work.

I moved to Bangalore to join IBM Research and worked remotely. I used to stay in office till late night reading Papers, and also Precoged during the weekends. PK used to be in constant touch as my guide and a mentor. Precog felt like a family and working on the Research Project was fun. Whenever I was stuck anywhere I was offered full support, I could message anytime and Anupama was lightning fast with her replies. I learnt the Skills of collaboration, time management and most importantly smart-working rather than hard-working.

Coming back from Bangalore I was in full swing to join the group with vigour. PK always has suggestions to improve efficiency and quality, his visions and ideas can be clearly seen imbibed in the group. Attending regular meetings, ‘whatsup’ and BM sessions, I have learned far too many things to be enumerated. Earlier I was intimidated by the rapid progress of the group, now I take pride with every new accomplishment of every member. Since every other day there is a new achievement being discussed in the group’s mailing list. Association with Precog has been a Roller-Coaster ride, where we have worked as team and partied as friends. I have been really lucky to be associated with the Coolest Research Group of IIIT-Delhi.

Below is the picture taken on Jan 4, 2016, Precog’s birthday!