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

I started at Precog as a part of the Project-O team, developing new support features for their prized social-media analytics platform, learning swiftly about the domain along the way. Although this was some very interesting development work and had the majority of the interns and group members working on it – one month in, I found myself being attracted towards another thread. Project-O supported a data retrieval feature to fetch all the multimedia data based on a keyword from multiple social networks, and it was just a random thought – 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 as I shared 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.

Precog 101

In the summer of 2016, I was a third year Computer Science engineering student at the College of Engineering, Guindy in Chennai desperately looking for a summer internship. A chance encounter with a senior from college, who was then a Research Associate (RA) here, is how I first heard of Precog. What followed was a year long journey in which I’ve gained mentors, friends and an admit at the Ohio State University for the MS in CSE program (Let me assure you that my time at Precog is what got me in). Here I try to summarize my observations on what makes Precog awesome.

What makes Precog Precog?

Extreme organization.

After working with PK and Precog for slightly more than a year now, I’ve seen how they’re meticulous about communication and scheduling. All communication happens through email, everything is written, there’s a separate email thread where you can reach out to the whole group when you need help or just want to share something interesting. PK occasionally sends motivating emails such as,

Are you spending 100 hrs a week? Just wanted to check with you….

All meetings are scheduled through shared calendar events, and meetings start exactly at the specified time. As PK says,

If it’s not on my calendar, it’s not in my life.

Collective intelligence.

The biggest advantage in being a part of Precog is that you’re not just one person trying to solve a problem. When you’re working on a problem at Precog, everybody is contributing in solving the problem in one way or the other, big or small. Therefore, you’re not restricted by just what you know. However, this does not mean that you will be spoon fed. You’ll probably get a new perspective on the problem or how to approach it which will eventually help you learn something new at every juncture.

Apart from just sending out an email on the thread, there are weekly “What’s up” sessions and monthly “Deep Dive” sessions where everybody presents their work and gets inputs from the rest of the group.

Amazing Mentors

One awesome thing about Precog is that you are never alone. There is always somebody who’s responsible for guiding you in the right direction when you’re stuck not knowing what to do.

In the one year that I was at Precog, I worked on two interesting projects with Anupama Aggarwal. Although I was told that she can be scary when she wants to be, she is one of the most hard-working and considerate person I’ve come across.

Constantly looking for important problems.

The people of Precog are constantly aware of what’s happening around them. Where others complain, they try to come up with solutions to make things better. The email thread is always abuzz with ideas on how to solve some very difficult problems.

The brainchild of one such discussion was the acclaimed Killfie project. What started out as PK sending out a news article about selfie deaths in India and asking

Can we do something about this?

progressed to become a full blown paper. To me, this is what is super awesome about Precog, the fact that they’re willing to spend their time and energy in doing super cool things that can make a difference.

Precog’s ability to attract awesome talent.

After years of looking at resumes and emails they’ve nailed the art of identifying super talented people to work with them. This quality control and insane standards ensure that when you work at Precog, you’re working with some of the smartest, brightest, most creative people you’ll ever cross paths with.

Feedback

Precog works on a system of feedback. Nobody is ever afraid to tell you when you’re slacking or not working hard enough. Although it maybe hard to swallow, it helps you bounce back quickly and produce cool output. It also works the other way around. Nobody at Precog is unwilling to listen, including PK. They welcome any and all constructive criticism that can help them improve themselves or make your experience at Precog better.

Nobody at Precog is ever afraid of failing. I’ve been told multiple times that it’s better to fail fast and correct quickly than to never fail at all and not know what you’re doing.

They love what they do.

Part of the reason why PK and his students are able to produce awesome output is because apart from being extremely talented, they’re super passionate about what they do. Don’t be surprised if you walk into one of our Deep Dive sessions to find a bunch of people in a heated discussion about the merits and demerits of somebody’s work.

They celebrate. A lot.

We celebrate a lot. We take part in each others joys and sadness. We’ve celebrated birthdays, work anniversaries, first days, last days, paper acceptances and paper rejections in some small way or the other, be it the full blown cake or the humble chai party at CDX.

Chilling.

Last but not the least, everybody at Precog knows how to really chill. Before I left from Chennai (in 2016), my mom said,

You’re going to be spending the summer with PhDs. They’re not a lot of fun and they study too much. You’re going to hate it there.

Her words could not be farther from the truth. In the one year that I’ve spent in Precog, I’ve really learnt how to strike a balance between working and having fun.

Overall, I’ve had a productive and fun year here at Precog and coming here was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I’ve changed a whole lot for the better from when I first came to Precog and the journey so far has been amazing.

 

Precog: A to Z

Hi, all.

I (Kartik Sethi, B.Tech. Final year at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus) interned at the Precog Research Group of IIIT Delhi in the summers of 2017 (May – July). I have tried to express my experiences through the following paragraphs.

A – Amazing was the word, which flashed in my mind when the programme started.

B – Best environment and bonhomie was the hallmark of the internship. I found the environment and infrastructure in IIIT as one of the best in any such institution.

C – Challenges. Every difficult problem is usually entailed with an innovative solution and every new solution is associated with challenges of its own. I also did face many hurdles during the course of my projects, but the peers at Precog were always ready to offer help and render their valuable inputs.

D – Deep Dive. These are the fortnightly in-depth sessions similar to WhatsUps (more about it in later paragraphs) where people get opportunities to share their project ideas, their ongoing project progress and take relevant feedback from other participants. One important aspect to gain from these sessions was that regular feedback is an essential prerequisite for any important research project.

E – Exploring new vistas and avenues. We got so many opportunities to learn and experience new vistas, ideas, and avenues. This was the first time when I got the taste of what real hard-core research is. I got to experience all the nitty-gritties related to approaching a research problem.

F – Family. The atmosphere here at Precog is more like a family. A family, who gels together, discuss together, sits together, enjoys going out together, dining out together and group members coming forward to each other like a well-knit family.

G – GPUs. Precog has many CPU servers and 3 GPU servers (two NVIDIA GTX 1080 and one NVIDIA Titan X Pascal!, currently the best in the market) with high computational specs. My projects were related to Deep Learning, so I had the opportunity to tinker with these amazing tools.

H – Hackathons. During the course of the internship, we worked on some challenging problems in the form of Hackathon(s) where all of us (interns, PhDs, RAs) brainstormed and collaborated to find innovative solutions.

I – Interns. I got the opportunity to work and collaborate with some of the most ebullient and brightest minds of the country belonging to various reputed institutions. It was the ravenous attitude of everyone in the group to crack arduous research problems, that kept me going and made me do better and better. Overall, it was an amazing experience getting to know them, work and learn with them.

J – Journey.

“Success is a journey not a destination.” – Ben Sweetland

My journey at Precog was indeed a roller coaster ride, filled with momentary disappointments (in not achieving the desired results) and spans of joyful triumphs (when I actually figured out where I was going wrong).

K – Keenness to learn. The atmosphere at Precog brings out the best in you. The internship serves as a great platform to gauge your research interests and work in the direction of the research areas which one likes to pursue.

L – Learning. My projects were related to Artificial Neural Networks (namely CNNs and LSTMs). The problems that I tried to tackle allowed me to experience a holistic learning in terms of concepts and ideas that have been tried and the improvements that can be ensued.

M – Mahasabha. Also known as Intern Mahasabha, it is basically a one to one session with PK, where we can share our progress regarding the projects and also if we are facing any problems. The session is informal so one can discuss about other things as well, even not related to Precog.

N – Nostalgia. Once a Precoger, always a Precoger! 🙂

O – Openness. The openness of every member of Precog is admirable. You can approach anyone for help (even the Precog Alumni). One will surely receive new ideas to try and also, there might be moments of constructive criticism, which is necessary for getting results in any kind of research.

P – PK. I still remember that awe-inspiring moment when I first researched about PK and the work that has happened at Precog. PK as a supervisor is the coolest faculty one can ask for. He is an epitome of a mentor who motivates, guides and supports you to a great extent. He makes sure that every individual in the group gets ample opportunities to discover their true potential and so that they can hit the acme of their goals. It was a fabulous experience to work with him as his mentee. He is truly the glue that holds this (Precog) family together.

Q – The Quality of research at Precog is at par with other research institutes in the country.

R – RAs and Pillars. Research Associates and PhD students (also known as Pillars), which I must mention are the exact manifestation to what they are to us and the group itself. All of them were very helpful. They guided us, motivated us when we were not getting the desired results. Also, everyone likes to be called by their names, so don’t you dare call anyone Ma’am/Sir here (not even PK!). It’s a statutory compulsion, and fines for those who violate it. 😛

S – Socials. The group is not at all limited to only work, we had regular fun outings, also known as #PrecogSocial. The outings ranges from PK’s place (yeah, you got that right!) to Barbeque Nation, etc.

T – Tenacity. The tenacious work environment and challenging projects kept me driving throughout the course of the internship.

U – Ultimate experience. The overall experience was ultimate at this institution, where one could learn to any extent.

V – Precog helped by giving me a Vivid picture of what and what not I want to pursue in future.

W – WhatsUp (WU). Toned down version of DeepDives (DD), these are the bi-weekly sessions (with the entire group), where Precogers discuss their projects, ask for suggestions and give interesting inputs. Through sessions like WUs and DDs one gets to know about the different frontiers of research happening around you.

X – The Xenial relationship that I have shared with Precog is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Y – There is a strong Yearning to return back to this place, whenever an opportunity strikes. 😀

Z – The Zealousness that I have seen in every Precoger, to solve problems related to social good is truly inspirational.

At the end, I would like to mention that Precog is a wonderful group to learn, work together and there are numerous opportunities where one could excel. Therefore, if someone is looking for an all round and comprehensive research experience or want to make a career in research, it is one of the best places for him/her to start their journey.

Here’s a glimpse of the Precog family.

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.

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

A stay of 2 months: An experience of lifetime

Like every engineering student, when I took admission in engineering college I had high hopes and ambitions of doing something big and worthy. But the monotonous curriculum, seniority dogma, student-faculty gap never provided conducive environment for research and those high ambitions somehow faded away. Engineering seemed to be limited to only what was there in textbooks. However when I finished my summer internship this year (2017) at Precog, I suddenly experienced a revival of my engineering ambitions. People around were working and building stuffs that are being applied to solve real world problems and being one of them was like dream come true! My stay at precog was the most enriching part of my academic life.

My project supervisor, Prof Ponnurangam Kumaraguru (PK) is the most awesome teacher I ever had. My journey with Prof. PK virtually began in fall 2016, when I took up his online course Privacy & Security in Online Social Media on NPTEL. I was looking for domains where I could apply my knowledge of computer science to solve real world problems, when I stumbled upon this course. Back then I was in 3rd year of my BTech study and was aiming for a summer internship at some premier research centers during my forthcoming summer vacation. Few weeks into the NPTEL course, I was so fascinated by the  course contents and teaching of PK, I absolutely made up my mind to do internship under him. Some time after the course had ended, I mailed PK with my SoP and CV, explaining why I wish to work at precog and how my interests and previous works align with the research domains pursued at precog. Few days later, I got a mail from him and after 3 rigorous rounds of selection process, I finally got selected for my much coveted internship.

My project at precog was on Information Overloading with Niharika Sachdeva as my mentor and guide. I primarily worked to figure out how the frequency of posting affects the engagement on posts made by police pages/handles on Facebook and twitter. Will write a separate blog on my technical work. Getting a conclusion from the large dataset was however not easy and took me weeks of failed analytics and experimenting with different statistical measures on the data. The best thing about precog is that it pushes you to your limits. I used to spend most of the time in the lab, highest being 18 hours. Lab hours never got boring, as I was always surrounded by hardworking and awesome people round the clock. People around were always ready to provide helping hand, be it professional or personal.

My most favorite thing at precog used to be WhatsUps  (regular meetups held twice a week) as it facilitated interaction with everyone, including PK, and also getting to know each other’s work. It thrilled listening to exciting work going around. Then there were detailed discussion sessions known as #DeepDive (a nightmare for me though :p) where one has to elaborately explain their work, codes, hypothesis, observations etc. I used to be highly concerned about DeepDives as I had to be prepared for most unanticipated questions and criticisms. The suggestions, criticisms and feedback however helped me a lot in refining the work done and coming up with better results. Here everyone was keen to help whenever I got stuck in something.

IIIT Delhi also had some surprises for me, that were to break my prejudices I had about educational institutions. I belong to a government engineering college; and being from a government college I am not used to niceness of professors and research scholars. I am used to professional barrier between students & teachers and undergrads & scholars. But starting from my day 1, I was extremely surprised how people were at precog. There is absolutely no professional protocol existing, like addressing research scholars as sir/madam, following a strict formal conversation style with them etc etc. These were something I was never used to, and it took me some weeks to get adjusted to. Everyone is friendly irrespective of them being PhD scholars, MTech scholars or RA’s. We cracked jokes, played games, went out for lunch. The person who made the most difference is PK himself. He is the most wonderful and friendly teacher I ever met and is completely different from conventional teachers. He invited us for dinner at his place, watched movie with us, took part in fun games; somethings hardly any professor does these days. He emphasizes on “Work hard, play harder”, thus apart from work related stuffs, he organizes fun gatherings and outings (we call it precog social). My best memory with him is this selfie. Its the first time I ever had a selfie with a professor!!

What I got from precog is experience, and as Randy Pausch aptly says

Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.

Being in Precog was much like being a part of a big family. It feels great being in such a group of highly talented and knowledged people working on really cool stuff that are making a difference in how online social media is used. I am super delighted to have worked with these awesome people. Can’t have a summer better than this!!!

Here’s the glimpse of precog family of which I was a part of.

 

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Hey there.

My tryst with PreCog happened in my second semester at IIIT Delhi. I had been catching up with Megha Arora (PreCog Alum now MS CS Candidate at CMU) about what she had been up to, and I was pleasantly informed about this cool research group she works with. She also kept on going on and on and on about this professor who likes to call him PK. That same day, I went online and looked up PreCog and I was awestruck. My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw PK’s CV. I had to work with the coolest professor in town. I had to work with these guys!

After gathering a decent amount of exposure in doing research with the Program Analysis Group at IIIT Delhi, I applied for a PreCog Internship in the Summer of 2016. I was exhilarated with the task given to me as part of the interview process. It was a perfect fit! I have always wanted to build systems which help others in some or the other way, and my task at hand was to build a social engagement calculator for Facebook pages (apologies for the Jargon! :P). While doing this, I learned about writing a technical report as to how the system works, the perceived shortcomings of it and some exemplary statistics of popular Facebook pages. I advanced further ahead in the process and met Prateek Dewan and Anupama Aggarwal for the technical interview round. I remember being extremely overwhelmed yet anxious when I was told that I had advanced to the final round and I have a meeting with PK. I am thankful that they found me competent enough to join the group!

I have had the tremendous honor of working on 2 projects which boast of really nice disruptive technology that can change the way people use social media. One of them is in the domain of Privacy in Social Media on Mobile Platforms whereas the other project is in the domain of social computing, data science, and HCI.

Killfie was a god-send for it allowed me to explore and finalize the subfield of Computer Science that I wanted to specialize in. It was a humbling experience to work on never-done-before things aimed at saving lives, hence the term disruptive. What seemed impossible at first took a lot of toiling, mentoring from great people, and a collective effort of the team working on the Killfie project for it to come to a realization. I am proud that I was able to contribute and solve a problem faced by the youth of the world at the moment, and thankful that I was given a chance to work on the same.

Have you ever felt a warm fuzzy feeling when you look at a group of people and just absolutely adore them? That’s what PreCog was to me from the outside. Now, take the outside perspective and amp it up by a thousand factors and you have got the state inside. We all like to hang out, discuss interesting anecdotes, take advice from each other … you get the picture. The good part for me in this scenario was that I could ping any of the pillars (the Ph.D. students in PreCog) and bricks (everyone else except the Pillars) and they would be happy to guide me on the right path, be it personal or professional life.

I have had nothing but positive takeaways from my experiences at PreCog. There have been times when I have crashed the server and yet, I was just let of with a strict warning to be extremely careful with the same. I have had sleepless weeks with just me getting 2-3 hours of sound sleep per day, showing me that I can still push my limit in working. People have properly heard me out, and given me proper constructive feedback. I have been scolded and got back on track if I was deviating. I have been pushed to experiment and let my creativity run wild as well.

We are always reminded of Randy Pausch’s famous quote in the group:

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.

I can surely say that I figured out how badly I have wanted some things in my life and how can I actually achieve those things. If somebody offered me the chance to start working with PreCog at an earlier point in my life, I would definitely take it in a heartbeat.

Below is a picture of happy PreCog-ers after having had a sumptuous lunch in the month of June of 2016:

The PreCog B(r)unch

The Great Precog Expedition

It all began with searching for opportunities to work in the summer of 2016. I had heard endlessly about the work culture at IIIT Delhi, the research groups and the out of this world faculty. After researching through the site, I stumbled upon Professor PK’s profile. As I read further about him, I was awestruck and amongst the many who would want to work with PK.

My first meeting with him lasted for roughly 15 minutes but I went back home with a bag full of riveting information about what it takes to be a Precog-er. This was also the first time I got to know about Randy Pausch. At home, I watched ‘The Last Lecture’ and understood why the walls of the Precog area are adorned with his quotes.

Soon after I took part in the OSMpalooza Hackathon and witnessed firsthand how quick progress is made by students here. My team came up with whatever best solution we could think of, for the problem statements given. Sadly, my team didn’t win a position but I witnessed some amazing solutions by other teams and most importantly I saw myself serious and engrossed in a project in Social Media Analysis. This was the time I was further sure of wanting to work in Precog since majority of the work is done on analysing social media content. This incident would be incomplete without quoting the following:

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.” –Randy Pausch

Very soon, I applied for the internship. After an intricate interview process, I received my offer letter. My first day at Precog was a Brainstorming session (which is another bonus point of this internship). Before the internship, how I went through research papers was basic skimming. And in the first session itself, I witnessed the dissection of a paper and not only deriving the entire methodology, but also discussing elaborate ideas about extending the current paper and implementing those as well. This is just one example of how working at Precog means legit serious work.

I was lucky to have Prateek Dewan as my mentor during the internship period. I started working closely with Prateek and soon after there were series of things I learnt that I apply till date. Before the internship the only language I worked in was Java and by the end of it, I had another language i.e. Python, to add to my skill set. Each little doubt regarding my project was cleared by him and he promptly replied to any query I had at any odd hour. I was a little apprehensive in the beginning since the progress made at Precog is super quick but I learned it all in my own time.

The most incredible characteristics of this group are the levels of sincerity and passion shared by each Precog-er when it comes to work. Apart from the respective projects carried out by each group, the regular Brainstorming sessions covered the latest research topics extensively. Several new ideas and information about the tech world were discussed in the mailing list and very soon I got the hang of it. One particular email comprised of PK discussing his latest choice of book to read, “Eat That Frog!” By Brian Tracy. Being an avid reader, I bought it the next day itself and the book has had phenomenal influences on my life. (amazing book suggestions!; another bonus of the internship). Striking a balance between working and having fun is another take away. The binding force of Precog is PK and the smart-working researchers, known as Precog-ers, make this group what it is.

Why I chose such a heavy sounding title for this post is because Precog can’t be defined by anything less. It is indeed a great expedition and I am fortunate to have experienced it.

I would like to end by quoting my favourite Randy Pausch saying that has now adorned my room’s wall as well:

“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.” 

Below is a picture from one of the group photo sessions!(Missing in the picture: PK)

I have been Precog-ed (for life): Part 4

Holà! It’s the first day of 2017. All of us just got done with looking back at the past year, trying to fathom how time flies and life metamorphosizes. My life has taken a leap too and this is my last blog as a part of the ‘I have been Precog-ed’ series. Earlier, I have written about my first stint at research (Part 1), a wonderful summer at the Information Sciences Institute at Marina Delray, Los Angeles (Part 2), my first paper presentation at ICWSM 2016 in Germany (Part 3), and my time at Precog. This post is about the last 6 months of my journey and an attempt to express what being a Precog-er is all about (for more on this, please read the first three parts too). Being a Precog-er for more than 3 years, I have more thoughts than I can ever pen down; from being an undergrad who joined Precog as a noob to a grad student at Carnegie Mellon University, my path has always been illuminated by the light of learning and hope.

April 2016 – I was struggling with end-sem preparations, document processing and Visa applications for my trip to ICWSM and my masters in the States, and the humdrum undergrad life when an unexpected email got an unexpected reaction from me –

“Dear Megha,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected as an one of the 40 CERN Openlab Summer Students 2016 (out of 1461 applicants)! For nine weeks, CERN will be your host for what we hope is going to be an interesting, fun and active summer…”

I have been an amateur astronomer for 9 years, and getting to work at the ‘Mecca of Particle Physics’ would have been a dream come true. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it. I was applying for my Schengen Visa for Germany (which would take another 2 weeks), and then I had to start my application for the US visa. I needed another Schengen Visa for Switzerland in a span of one week. On top of that, the only dates I could select for the internship were overlapping with my initial orientation schedule at CMU. I almost disrupted a meeting in PK’s office to break the news to him. I was sad. Pillars (Ph.D. students at Precog) and PK were convinced that I should try and if it doesn’t work out, so be it. That’s a Precog trait – not giving up until you have given your best shot! After cutting short the duration of my summer at CERN, pushing CMU to allow me to skip the orientations (convincing them that I’ll manage when I wasn’t sure myself I’ll), and getting my Schegen for Switzerland in a day (thanks to CERN’s administrative staff who made a special request for me to the embassy), I was ready for a summer at CERN.

I worked for 2 months at CERN’s data center on a storage system of ~125PB (one of the largest in the world). CERN openlab program includes a lecture series to helps CS students understand the Physics needed for some of the projects, trips to ETH Zürich and EPFL Lausanne, hackathons, and several means to help the students gain insights about the revolutionary projects spanning across 100 hectares in Switzerland and more than 450 hectares in France! It was a humbling experience, which entailed learning something new every day. Europeans have nailed the work-life balance too. Along with finishing my project on time, I managed to check Geneva, Lausanne, Lyon, Zürich, Paris, Montreux, Bern, Engelberg, Chamonix and many more off my list!

Delhi for 2 days, and Pittsburgh was my next destination, my home for the next 16 months. I am an MSCS student at CMU now. Last to arrive and one of the youngest of the lot, thanks to PK I had ample of background knowledge about life as a student here and the city of Pittsburgh. The experience I have gained at Precog comes in handy when I have to identify research gaps and solve hard problems. I feel more equipped and confident to take up the challenges that come along with grad life at a school like CMU.

Throughout these 6 months (Jul – Dec 2016), I have been working with a few Precog-ers on what we now call the Killfie project. It has turned out to be one of the most exciting projects I have worked on as a part of the group. It is the inclination to work on interesting problems with some brilliant people, which gives me the motivation to find time for this amongst courses and projects at CMU.

I cannot finish this blog without revisiting these lines from my first blog – “…PK, the heart and brain of Precog. He is the coolest adviser I have ever met and his skills and dexterity at work are almost mind-boggling. I came to know him as my Probability and Statistics professor, the role changed to being my adviser working at Precog and now I see him as a mentor for life..”. A lot of what I have been able to achieve in the last 3 years, I owe it to PK’s unconditional support. Thank you PK for illuminating my path always and for proving what good mentorship can accomplish!
My time at Precog has taught me how to help people, make friends, eliminate distractions and focus, improve daily, think big, fail often and give nothing short of your very best effort! I have had last minute unscheduled video calls in the middle of the night from the other end of the world with Precog-ers when I needed help. Pillars, interns, RAs – thank you each one of you for this experience. Even though I live in a different time-zone now and my attendance at the 4th floor Ph.D. lab has been at an all-time low, I know my association with the group will last forever.  As has been rightly put – ‘Once a Precog-er, always a Precog-er!’.

PS – Some pictures…

Just another day at Precog…
“It’s all about the people!”
The room where Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web at CERN!
This one doesn’t need a caption… 🙂
The Aiguille du Midi Skywalk, “Step into the Void” at Chamonix (altitude – 3842m)
CERN Openlab Summer Students 2016