A Epistle open letter to Precog,PK & RK

Dear Precog,PK & RK,

Because we together had written lines and lines on Latex, so now its high time to revise, relive and revive something ‘unread’ between those lines. Hold a cup of coffee and have a flashback 😉

So Let me start with day zero when I got the first glance of your presence, it was one fine afternoon while exploring things around Higher studies and research opportunities I came across NPTEL Course – Privacy and Security in Online Social Media, which was obviously fascinating for me because I am a person who likes to live one life on planet Called Social Media. After getting in to course my POV about social media started changing, It was watching another side of coin named Social Media. I learned tools, techniques and much more insight about social media which more real, much relevant with many directions to think about. So our first ‘Virtual’ interaction ignited wish to get a chance to work with you and under you.

Well, in parallel to this course, I got admission in MTech – Information security & Management at Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women and I think it was destined to come close one more step to you, I met with Rishabh Sir (pursuing Ph.D. with PK as advisor), Prof in IGDTUW IT Dept – who has admirable style of teaching and linking real-life problems on board for example linking graph data structure to social media network, and always promote us to come up with new PROBLEMS. Here my connection with you gets stronger as Rishabh sir came from same research roots of Precog family. One year passed and during this one year, we attended many events and workshops organised by Precog.

Research Symposium 2017

Meanwhile, we were attending different event organised by Precog @IIITD, the first year of masters was about to complete. I was aware that it was the right time to choose the realm of the dissertation. That time Rishabh sir guided us to attend Privacy and security in Social Media Summer school @IIITH. I attended it and what I learned was eye-opener and interest builder or in better words, Now I was clear what will be my dissertation domain. (my summer school experience). Yes, It was a deterministic move of my academic journey and I was happy that I took it up. Before going to Summer school we met up with PK in IIITD for short catch up and pitching our ideas around social media. PK gave us some small tasks to build up our skill set to move ahead in the same realm. After coming back from summer, I talked with Rishabh sir about my ‘WISH’ to work with Precog and PK, so Rishabh sir agreed upon to co-advised me with PK. Then the next day this happened –

 

The most awaited mail from PK

Seriously, it was #WOW Moment for me. Oh yes, I was the first student from IGDTUW to be guided by PK + RK Together.😊

So my thesis saga starts now, I met with PK along with Rishabh sir, we discussed The #Cool_idea to work upon, which was “Automated methods to collect Linked Identity across Online Social Media” in which we have to figure out methods by which we can collect one user identity over cross social media platforms. It was the first episode of interaction with PK as an advisor. He was very much enthusiastic to listen to me as well as to tell me what can be done to make it better.

Thenceforward, I used to go to meet PK on every Friday for rest of 8-9 months. Whenever I came up with something new like one of the methods called ‘google dorking’ to solve our problem statement, PK showed his eagerness to learn about it, to go in depth which made me excited to do even better. I learned how to work together because research is not limited to oneself only, it’s for everyone. Here my Special thanks to Indira and Sonu, discussion with them made things easy and more clear. I loved brainstorming session with other precogers as well. Everyone’s problem is everyone’s problem and they used to show off a cool spirit to solve it together with tools of wisdom and creativity. Now Friday excitement reason had changed, I started to wait for Friday but not because of the weekend but because of that Meeting, that discussion. Although It was not bounded only to Friday, I was free to go there to share, to ask for help, to ask for guidance across Precog Group members plus PK.

One of the best parts of Thesis saga memories is Metro ride towards IIITD with Rishabh Sir, with whom metro travel of 60 minutes had become the best time to discuss things inclusive of social media happenings. It was fun. Here, I would like to underline guidance style of Rishabh sir. What makes is special is His dedication for us, His every weekly update, His time-management style. He never ever forced any methodology on me to follow, we used to discuss with equal weighting of ideas. His only motive was bringing best out of us. I can say it with great proud that I was guided by Best faculty of IGDTUW 😊

Hey, what happened? Am I writing too long that your hot coffee will turn out cold coffee .. hahaha – Need not to worry, Because its time to mention unforgettable energetic WU Sessions in Precog, In which we used to tell every precog buddy about what we had once in last week or so. I do remember PK called to share my Smart India Hackathon experience with all. So we can say our bond was not limited only up to dissertation, it was beyond that. In nutshell, One can feel it was bond up to eternal and collaborative learning.

Under PK and Rishabh sir, I got the opportunity to grow myself. Best example could be In 2017, I was an audience in the Research Symposium and in Research Symposium 2018, I presented my poster.

Poster presentation @Research symposium 2018 @IIITD

Oh well, about this poster- it was sub-part or discovery within my dissertation problem statement in which we figured out one privacy leakage in Twitter-Instagram cross sharing mechanism. I can’t forget how much excitement we all were to work on this and publish its POC.

After completion of work and getting results, Precogers helped me in the write up as well by giving their valuable inputs which made final D-Day to come i.e. 12th July 2018 – My Defense day (Although I wanted PK to be present in-person on that day but he couldn’t as, but digitally he was with me).

Right Now, I am working as Software developer in Oracle (Bengaluru), but wherever I will be What I learned with you will be with me always deep in the heart 💗

At last, Credits for this Gold Medal from IGDTUW to Precog, PK & RK where credits will always be due because Instead of leading me by holding my hands, you asked me to walk ahead while you caringly observed from behind. –

Received Gold Medal @ IGTDUW convocation 2018

Nothing can come close to the inspirational presence of a guide like you in a student’s journey. You have no idea how important a role you play in shaping for a student, a brilliant destiny. Creativity, imagination, and originality – the things you have cultivated in me are not quantifiable or measurable right now. But I am sure that their contribution in my life will be way more than just measurable.

Happy us 😉

So while you were stirring sugar in your coffee cup with this letter, I re-added syrupiest memories from the bowl of student life in the current moment, by sketching this letter to you. As said ‘A lot can happen a cup of Coffee”, and likewise this letter said A Lot. I would love to live all these moments in the blink of an eye again and again! Kudos 🙏 _/\_ 🙏

Life on the 4th Floor

For people who’ve known me all through my stint at IIIT-Delhi, the title of this blog should come as no surprise. I was infamous for spending a good portion (read: majority) of my time sitting in/around the 4th floor of the (old) Academic building to the extent that I have been called ‘4th floor boy’ at multiple points. The 4th floor of the Old Academic Building was home to the Precog lab (at the time) and was the primary reason for me spending most of my waking hours in this part of campus. While this may seem excessive (also slightly exaggerated), I can confidently say that my time at Precog has been full of the most defining experiences I have had in my life.

My journey at Precog started pretty early. Towards the end of my first semester, we got an email from PK talking about his group and that he’s looking for second/third year undergrads to join Precog. Being extremely under qualified, I decided to shoot him an email asking if I could somehow help out. To my surprise he seemed interested and and asked me to send my resume. Brimming with naïveté, I responded to him saying “I don’t have a resume but here’s 4 paragraphs of what I’ve done instead”. I am genuinely still surprised (and grateful) that PK didn’t delete this email thread right there, but instead decided to connect me with Nilaksh (Precog alum, now doing a PhD at Georgia Tech) for an eligibility “task”. In hindsight, I’m very glad that the naive 18 year old in me had the drive to reach out to PK that early on because sending that one email impacted the course of my life in a monumental way. I know it feels a little dramatic, but trust me when I tell you that getting involved with Precog was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made.

In the beginning, it was extremely intimidating since I was suddenly surrounded by very smart and experienced people. We had weekly meetings where we would each talk about what we worked on in the week and would give each other constructive feedback. The first couple of times, I walked out these discussions with a much lower self-esteem than when I walked into it; it was overwhelming to be interacting with people who have such a deep understanding of the domain they’re working in and it was easy to feel clueless. A few weeks in, once I had the chance to settle in, things felt a lot different. Things started to seem a little more familiar and I felt as if I was actually starting to contribute to the discussions. The “intimidating” PhD students actually turned out to be the nicest and most helpful people I have had the opportunity of working with, complete opposite to my first impressions. I would (very liberally) bother them with questions about my project and they would actually invest a lot of time trying to help me through. I cannot stress on how important our interactions were, and how big a role they played in my time there (more on this later).

During my internship at MPI, summer 2017.

At the risk of sounding immodest, I would like to think that I did some pretty cool things during my undergrad. I interned at Georgia Tech (Atlanta, US) in the summer of my sophomore year and then at Max Planck Institute for Software Systems (Saarbruecken, Germany) the next summer, which were incredible opportunities from both, an academic, as well as life experience standpoint. I was also lucky enough to author some very interesting publications, including a first-authored publication at CHI which is a top-tier conference. The point behind my bragging is that all of this (and a whole lot of other things I haven’t mentioned) were possible single-handedly because I was working at Precog. I got a lot of support from both PK and the other lab members which made it possible for me to visit these places and have a high work output there. In my opinion, I think Precog is one of the very few research groups in the country where the quality of work/connections make it possible to get these kind of opportunities; I am very confident that I wouldn’t have as much to (humble) brag about if I wasn’t a part of this group.

I went on to work with Precog for over 3.5 years which is much longer than the usual amount of time people work with research groups at IIIT-Delhi. One of the biggest selling points (and why I continued working at Precog) is the real world impact Precog has as a group. Unlike a lot of research groups where the job is “done” once a paper is published, I have personally seen many different tools/technologies which have come from said research, and vice versa (papers coming from tools). Being an impact driven person, this was very motivating for me and was a big reason for me working with Precog for as long as I did. Even when I joined as a first semester undergrad, I was put on a team working on a mission-critical project of national importance. If you are someone who’s interested in using computer science to impact human lives on a large scale, I urge you to take a moment and check Precog out.

When students and advisor decide to wear the same GaTech Tshirts!

It was only much later, when I was fortunate enough to visit some of the best CS schools across the globe, that I got a chance to draw a parallel between how things are at Precog vs the rest of the world. I had expected to be completely blown away by the resources/infrastructure/functioning of these top research groups, but honestly a lot of it felt very familiar. It was only then that it slowly started to realize how representative Precog is of a leading research group even though we’re based in a small school in India. In all my time there, there has never been a moment where a project was “slowed down” because of a lack of computational resources; it was actually quite the opposite, where a project sometimes (mostly) had an entire server with multiple GPUs to themselves. Put together the fact that almost every project has collaborations with industry/other top research labs across the country (or globally), and you don’t feel like you’re in a small institute in India anymore.

While the resources, infrastructure, connections etc. are great, the people at Precog are the real “wealth”; Precog is less of a “research group” and more of a family. I know how cheesy that sounds, but honestly there is no other way to put it. I have personally seen a lot of members come and go from the group, and the one thing every single person will tell you is how “together” everyone is. Everyone knows what every other person is working on, and there is a very high likelihood that most people would have contributed to your project in one way or the other. This culture of helping each other is unique; I have never seen any other group that is so closely linked to each other and that spends so much time working with other people to augment their work. I personally owe a lot to so many members of the group who I bothered continuously (and still continue to bother, I literally just messaged some of them a couple of minutes ago) and who never said no, even though they probably had a lot of other things going on. (Big shoutout to (Dr) Prateek, (Dr) Niharika, Anupama, Srishti, Megha, Rohan, Archit, Nilaksh, Yatharth and every one else I had the opportunity to work with, safe to say I wouldn’t be half as successful at what I do if it wasn’t for all of you guys).

Partying!

I realize that I’ve only talked about the work side of the culture at Precog, but there is also an equally important side to the culture where we like believe in a life beyond work. From “official” socials and organised trips, to (very) impromptu plans and celebrations, we have done it all. Some things that stand out for me include memorable Precog birthday celebrations, as well as celebrating individual birthdays or paper acceptances in an elaborate way. Over the years, I’ve spent a significant amount of time at Precog just hanging out and chilling with people; I distinctly remember there was a time where we would go out partying together at least twice a week.

One of those “socials”!

I’ve talked a lot about the group as a whole, but what you need to understand is that none of this would have been possible without PK. Without a doubt, he is the one person who makes this group function the way it does and I don’t think there’s anyone who could do it better. PK has been one of the biggest supporters I’ve had all through my time at IIIT-Delhi (and now even after), even much before he officially became my advisor. He has been one person that has gone above and beyond to help me push myself (or dig myself out of a hole), and trust me when I say that this happened a lot. Even though he has *a lot* of things going on, he somehow always makes time for his students and makes sure that things are going well at their end. I could go into a lot more depth on how big of a (positive) influence PK has had on my life, but I will stop at saying that I am truly amazed by how a person can alone make such a big impact on so many people. To the say that I am glad I had the opportunity to work with him and interact with him is a major understatement.

First of all, I need to apologize for this entire blog so far. I read through this a couple of times but I’m still very unhappy with how it has come out. Part of it has to do with my literary ineptness, but it’s mostly because it is (personally) impossible to write a blog post describing how awesome this group and everyone in it are. The downside of spending so much time working with a group of people is that you have too many experiences and memories for you to be able to pen down in a couple hundred words. I could probably go on for hundreds of pages and still not do justice to my experience here. Precog is a place where I had so many essential learning experiences (in all meanings of the term) and a lot of fun. There have been ups and downs (which is true for everywhere) but I cannot think of a single moment over the years where I regretted being a part of the group. It’s been a couple of months now since I left Precog (and IIIT-Delhi) to join the MS CS program at Carnegie Mellon University, but I can confidently say that my time here has played a major role in enabling me to be successful in life on the outside.

Given a choice now, would I do it all over again? In a heartbeat.

This is Why I Love My #ProfGiri #3

Once again it is that time of the academic year when all graduating students and Research Associates are moving / moved on to the next phase in their life; starting work or grad school in India or flying off to some grad school outside India. It is super gratifying to see students achieve their goals, and more satisfying to play a role in the process.

Below is the list of students (arranged in alphabetical order of last name) who have spent significant amount of time working with me this year / last 2 years or more / who are graduating with me or I have written a Letters of Recommendation (LoRs) for their admissions / job and are now headed to great places.

  1. Divyansh Agarwal: #classof2016 B.Tech. NSIT Delhi. MS in Computational Data Science at Carnegie Mellon University
  2. Taneea S Agrawaal: #classof2018 Goldman Sachs, Bangalore, India
  3. Sarthak Ahuja: #classof2016 MS in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University
  4. Shrey Bagroy: #classof2018 MS in CS at Carnegie Mellon University
  5. Kushagra Bhargava: #classof2016 B.Tech. BVPCoE, Delhi. MS in CS University of Southern California
  6. Gurpriya Bhatia: #classof2018 M.Tech. Tata Research Development and Design Centre (TRDDC), Pune
  7. Anam Bhatia: #classof2018 MS in HCI University of Maryland
  8. Mansi Goel: #classof2018 MS in CS University of Maryland
  9. Arpit Gogia: #classof2018 B.Tech. DTU, Delhi. IXIGO
  10. Nalin Gupta: #classof2018 MS in Data Science at Northeastern University
  11. Divam Gupta: #classof2018 Microsoft Research, India
  12. Dhruv Kuchhal: #classof2018 B.Tech. MAIT, Delhi. #PrecogIntern from summer 2017. Full time Research Associate with us.
  13. Lohit Parmar: #classof2018 Still deciding
  14. Simran Saxena: #classof2018 M.Tech. Still deciding
  15. Indira Sen: #classof2018 M.Tech. Ph.D. at GESIS, Germany 
  16. Sahar Siddiqui: #classof2018 MS in CS New York University
  17. Siddharth Singh: #classof2018 Microsoft, Hyderabad
  18. Anshuman Suri: #classof2018 Microsoft, Hyderabad

Below is a picture with most of these students. I sincerely thank each one of them for contributing towards my ProfGiri!

Here is a pointer to the blog that I wrote for 2017  and 2016 about graduating students and their next steps.

Hoping to see more and more success stories every year!

Projects, Methodology, Results, and Blogs. Privacy and Security in Online Social Media @ IIITH

Continuing the tradition of capturing project ideas, methodologies, results, and artefacts from the course in a blog, here are the projects from the Fall 2018 edition of PSOSM @ IIITH. For Fall 2017 edition @ IIITD, please visit here.

I taught TM18004: Privacy and Security in Online Social Media in Fall 2018 semester. This is my 1st full time teaching experience at IIIT Hyderabad. It was super exciting to teach as a faculty in the same institute where I had taken courses (in 2003 / 2004). It now makes most sense to me why faculty who teach at their alum institutes take so much pride, I have so many friends and well-wishers who belong to this category of faculty. We had 24 students taking the course for credits, and one Teaching Assistant. There were in total 10 projects developed as part of the course. It was wonderful to see the projects spanning all popular networks, Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, Strava, Gab, Flick, Twitter, Reddit, and 4Chan. I personally got to know Gab and Strava more through the projects and students.

The intention for this blog is to capture all the projects related details and share it widely for larger audience. Thanks to all the wonderful work by students in the class. The footfall for the poster presentation was 100+ from IIITH community, and some coming from outside too. We also had some evaluators from outside campus, including from IIT Hyderabad.  Below is the customary picture of all Students, Teaching Assistant, and Evaluators from the poster presentation and for more pictures, please see here. Below is the list of all 10 projects (arranged in the alphabetical order of project name) with the following details: Project name | Students involved | Network (s) | Blog. All blogs were developed by the students, we (instructor, TA) do not take any responsibility for the content produced (both quality and the details).

  1. Authenticity of Linkedin Profile | Aman, Harshit, Aashay | Facebook, Linkedin | Blog | Pic
  2. Comparative study on effect of anonymity and ephemerality in social media | Eashwar Subramanian, Himakar Yanamandra | Reddit, 4Chan & Twitter | Blog
  3. Finding your city using your Strava activities | Devansh Manu, Shravya K, Arhant Jain | Strava | Blog
  4. Predicting Elections from Social Media | Vighnesh, Abhijith | Twitter | Blog
  5. LinkIt – Using social media profiles to create a wholesome profile | Aaron, Aniruddha | FB, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn | Blog
  6. Analyzing NSFW on Reddit | Pranav Bhasin, Daksh, Deepanshu | Reddit | Blog
  7. Nyan Gab | Hate speech analysis | Dheeraj, Ritvik | Gab | Blog
  8. Social Phishing. Soumya, Soujanya | Linkedin, Instagram] | Blog
  9. TNT – Troll or Not Troll | Aakash KT, Manan Sharma, Vaibhav Gupta | Twitter | Blog
  10. Un-Locate It | Pranav Goel, Noveen Sachdeva, Aditya Bharti | Flickr | Blog

Special thanks to Shreya for TAing the course.

Below are some quotes by students from the course

“In my time taking the course, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most defining aspects of the PSOSM course is it’s ability to remain as close to reality as possible. As academics, it’s easy for a lot of us (especially professors) to get stuck in the nitty gritties of theoretical solutions, only to forget what the real life application (and implication) of such solutions could entail. PSOSM didn’t have that issue at all, and it was clear throughout the course that this stemmed from PK’s ability to foster such an environment. PSOSM is perhaps one of the few courses that not only encourages but demands its students to find a real life problem, and to try to solve it head on.”

“We had a lot of fun throughout the course, with PK at the centre of some timely humour during classes. In summary, I would say it’s definitely one of the best courses I’ve taken and a fantastic experience.”

“About the course PSOSM, it had a great vibe, easily being one of the most engaging and interactive courses I have ever had. The course seemed to bring out a different side in all of us. Most professors complain about the lack of enthusiasm among students of this generation, but PSOSM had us reading up on articles and papers, which we would then discuss and debate over in class. From learning to collect Twitter data to having guest lecturers from CMU, the course seemed to have it all. Overall, I enjoyed the course tremendously and had an amazing time interacting with Professor PK.”

Stay tuned for updates on the super exciting course that I am planning to offer next semester!

Intelligent Tutors, Robotics and Fun: RISS’18 @ CMU

I’ve (Shiven Mian, B.Tech. Class of 2019) had the privilege of working with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (the world’s largest Robotics facility) for the past 9 months, and spent Summer 2018 (June – August) at CMU’s sprawling campus as a FICCI Research Scholar in the Robotics Institute Summer Scholars (RISS) program (where I was one of 35 undergrads selected around the world). I’m working with Dr. Jack Mostow (Research Professor Emeritus, CMU) on the RoboTutor project (formerly Project LISTEN), which is one of the five $1M Global Finalists in the $15M Global Learning XPRIZE Challenge, funded by Elon Musk. The project is an Android-based Intelligent Tutoring System that enables 7-10 year old children, with no access to schools in remote regions, to learn basic literacy and Math without adult assistance. RoboTutor is currently being beta-tested in Tanzanian villages, and its design as well as the Challenge’s aim could potentially enable millions of deprived children in the future get a basic quality education in their formative years.

If you’d told me 10 months ago I would be writing all this now, I’d have laughed. Seriously. Three months on, the experience still seems surreal today – so this blog would also be a bit long.

I. Applying

Having dabbled with various different fields in the past two and a half years, I really wasn’t sure where to spend my summer experience this year. Though very broadly I had done projects involving Data Science and HCI, I didn’t have one particular area of interest and was mostly versatile. What I did always want though, was that my work should involve (or analyse) interaction with people, and hopefully impact their behavior and lives positively in some way, and I’ve abided by it in most of the work I’ve done during this time. So when I came across RoboTutor and XPRIZE (through a friend on Facebook), I checked if my interests were a match and spoke to a few people in the team, and I realised this is exactly the high-impact social good project I’ve always wanted to be a part of.

Things went uphill quickly from there. I directly emailed Dr. Mostow for applying to RoboTutor, and a couple of interactions later, I started working remotely in Feb 2018, till May. My remote work involved re-designing and developing RoboTutor’s login system for children that utilised faces, streamlining the way we collected logs from the beta test sites, and some server-side work. I also heard about and applied to RISS in the meantime on his suggestion. It’s a fairly standard application – like most others, it requires only an SoP, CV, transcripts and LoRs, along with mentioning what your interests are among the areas RI does research in. Luckily I was one of the 35 selected worldwide in April. To make things sweeter, I also received funding from FICCI for pursuing RISS with RoboTutor. It was pretty flattering for me to be contributing to a project of such massive real-world impact, but being selected in one of the best undergraduate research programs at a place like CMU and being funded for it, however, was well beyond what I had expected. Little did I know that this wasn’t just a research internship – it ended up showing me fields I had never known existed, and impacted my future plans and interests more than anything else I had experienced.

(Cohon University Center, CMU. Glad it wasn’t Winter)

II. Work @ RISS

Since I’d already been working with the team for 4 months, so once I got to CMU in June, I didn’t have much to do to know all the main people in the RoboTutor team, or the massive system architecture RoboTutor had. However, I did work on a different area of RoboTutor for RISS. Me and another fellow RISS scholar, Mononito Goswami, worked on a new analytical tool for aiding RoboTutor’s design improvement process, which we dubbed SPOT. SPOT uses student-interaction data logged by RoboTutor, screen capture videos and AI to automatically detect ‘hot spots’ (major design issues) in the app which are most detrimental to student engagement and learning. The tool then provides designers & developers of RoboTutor with video evidence and causal characteristics of those hot spots – helping them with deriving actionable intelligence to improve RoboTutor accordingly (an example of data-driven iterative design). After getting feedback from Dr. Mostow, the rest of team, and a few other people (especially Ken Koedinger) from CMU and the week-long LearnLab Summer School which we attended, we managed to co-author a working paper on SPOT (for CMU’s Working Papers Journal (WPJ)). We also managed to submit our paper to a top-tier conference. Though this was a great summer outcome, seeing videos of children in our beta sites happily interacting with the things we designed and improved was very satisfying. We knew were contributing to a better learning experience for them, and in future hopefully millions of children. (Update: Accepted to AAAI’19 as a Student Paper 🙂 )

(Part of the RoboTutor Team @ LearnLab. Clockwise: Dr. Mostow, Amogh, me, Corrie, Rebecca, Mononito, Qiwei, Nirmal. Gates-Hillman Centre, CMU)

III. Beyond Tutors

RISS for me wasn’t just a foray into the world of Intelligent Tutoring Systems or Educational Data Mining, it was far more holistic. I am fortunate and privileged to have met some of the brightest peers, and the small cohort size led to us really bonding together as a group. We learned and helped each other in our projects, organised study groups, peer-reviewed each other’s WPJ papers, toured labs, attended RSS’18 (and heard Sergey Levine talk about his work), and even shared lab space (props to Viraj, whose lab space I shared frequently). Being new to many aspects of Robotics, I particularly enjoyed touring my peers’ labs at RI, especially the FRC and the MSL Lab – some of the work being done in the labs was just amazing and futuristic, the kind of stuff I previously saw in those short this-is-the-future videos on YouTube. Lunch talks by RI faculty were hosted every Wednesday as well. Personally, the very first lunch talk (hosted by Red Whittaker) was one of my summer’s highlights because of the impact it left on me (he had spoken about his journey in Robotics and lessons from life), and it was one of the most motivational and insightful talks I had ever heard.

     

(Left: The Search Based Planning Laboratory (SBPL); Right: one of the ballbots at the MSL Lab – the first ballbots ever built)

But the most fun we had as a cohort was in the Robotics workshops. There were three workshops: on ROS (organised by NREC), drones (by DJI) and humanoids (by UBTech). All the workshops were 2-3 days long, and involved full-day tutorials and a one day team competition in the end. It was really exciting to work with the drones and the humanoids, get acquainted with their development environments, and the limited time for the competitions enabled our teams to stay up at nights dabbling with them. It was an amazing experience, and some of us did walk out with some cool stuff to say the least.

(PS: we own them now 🙂 )

RISS also gave us a lot of opportunities to share our work. Apart from the poster session at the end of the program, the lab tours and the WPJ, there were multiple events organised over the summer to share our work with others. I was fortunate to have been one of the panel speakers at the AI4ALL Summer School at CMU, where I interacted and shared my work with RoboTutor with some of the brightest high school STEM students in the US. All in all, seeing the work done in the labs, attending the talks and the workshops, and moreover giving back and sharing what I learned, all massively enhanced my interest in Robotics. It also enhanced my perception that the Robotics Institute (and CMU) is one of the most inclusive research institutes in the world, and more importantly, a place without limits. It truly is.

(AI4ALL Panel Discussion. “How did you get started with AI?”)

IV. The Fun

While it may seem all the various events we had literally every week took up all the time, the 10 weeks at RISS were nothing without the fun. Apart from Pittsburgh (where I was based), I was lucky to get time to explore most of the East Coast – I visited Philadelphia, Washington DC and New York City (which was particularly awesome because I visited on the July 4 week).

 

(Left: Times Square; Right: Fireworks Show over the Hudson River. New York, July 4th 2018)

But the fun I had with the RISS cohort is what I cherish the most. Whether it be the late night parties at each other’s places, checking out different cuisines in Oakland and Shadyside regularly, exploring Downtown, witnessing the Pirates play, going for Arctic Monkeys (!), playing squash or table tennis or ultimate frisbee (and sometimes just FIFA) everyday after work, or simply hanging out near the coffee machines (which are frankly amazing at RI) – we always found a way to stay together as a close group. We all still remain in close touch, and on a personal level, one instance which exemplifies how amazing our bond is (or would turn out to be), was on my birthday when, beyond all my expectations, the entire cohort surprised me with a cake in the middle of one of the talks (and this was barely 2 weeks into RISS). It couldn’t have been any better for me.

     

(Clockwise: AM, one of those random dinners, me with aforementioned cake, Pirates vs Mets at PNC Park)

V. Final week

All good things must unfortunately come to an end, and though I lived the best 10 weeks of my life, time just flew by. The last few days of RISS were both exciting and poignant. The poster presentation sessions went pretty well, where CMU was kind enough to get prominent researchers from both RI and outside of CMU to see our work, and since it was during a time most incoming Graduate Students were moving in, the poster session had an amazing crowd and I made a lot of connections.

(Me, Mononito, Dr. Mostow – RISS Poster Session, Newell-Simon Hall)

The final day had the RISS closing ceremony, which was pretty much a celebration of the summer – our time to say our goodbyes to our advisors and the RISS organisers. The day ended with all of us in the cohort having an amazing farewell party overnight.

 

(Left: receiving my RISS graduation certificate from Dr. John Dolan and Ms. Rachel Burcin, RISS Program Organisers. Right: me with Dr. Mostow)

VI. Acknowledgements

There are few experiences in my career that I could call ‘life-changing’ (it’s also sometimes loosely used), but RISS is comfortably one of them – not just because of the work, the mentorship and the peers, but because it solidified my interests in the fields I liked, exposed me to others I had never imagined existed and helped me be more versatile. I came in as a novice to the field of Robotics and Intelligent Tutors, having never been in a Summer Research Program (or even to the US!). I left more proficient in these fields but more importantly with endless connections, a bag full of memories (and a full SD card), and some invaluable life lessons. I consider myself very lucky and fortunate to have lived this experience.

I’m truly grateful to Dr. Mostow for believing in me through these 9 months, enabling me to live what I lived this Summer at RI and contribute to such an amazing project, but most importantly for the life lessons and anecdotes he shared with me so that I improve as a human and work to my fullest. Whatever happens next for me in my career, these are lessons I will always keep with me. I’m grateful to Mononito for being an amazing colleague, without whose work our summer would never have been as good. I’m also really grateful to Dr.  PK and Dr. Vinayak Naik for recommending me for my RISS application, Indira for helping me on it, and FICCI for sponsoring my stay. And finally, I’m extremely thankful to Precog for providing me an unparalleled environment and exposure to get involved in research at IIITD to begin with and motivating me to aim higher – I couldn’t have been part of a better group here.

(RISS Cohort 2018, Closing Ceremony – University Center, CMU)

Lastly, here’s my 2¢ if you like: Try to work on socially relevant projects if possible, it’s extremely satisfying. Be open to other fields especially during undergrad, you never know when you’ll find something interesting. And more importantly, apply to CMU and RISS. However highly you think of this place, your expectations will be exceeded.

(PS: As always, for any doubts / advice / other help you may require or just a chat, you’re most welcome to contact me through emailLinkedin or Telegram. I’d love to talk!)

class undergradAtPrecog(IIITD):

def  __init(self)__:

How I got to know about Precog is quite dramatic (call it fate? hahaha). It had been a really long day (Intro to Engineering Design project demo, IIRC) and I was walking past GB Pant towards the metro station. To give a rough idea about how far back I’m talking about: Phase II construction of the college was yet to begin, attendance was never recorded in any lecture, and Ubers were allowed to enter college premises.

As I was walking, absolutely dreading the hour long ride back home, a car stopped by and offered me a ride till the metro station. And I begin an extremely foolish (and lazy) kid, got into the car without giving it a second thought. However, the rest of the story doesn’t pan out like a Bollywood kidnapping thriller. To the contrary, I met two of the most fantastic people I know, Megha and Rohan! It was during this ride down to Hauz Khas metro (yep, they saved a lot of the metro anguish that day), that I got to know about Precog, PK, and most importantly that I don’t need to have taken any advanced courses in order to join Precog (many professors ask you to take their course before joining in).

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to apply straight away (mostly since I was spending any time I got those days writing code for FLINT). However, I did realise that there is a lot more to computer science than Byld and Foobar (which I was completely obsessed with during that period). So as soon as I wrapped up my GSoC project, I shot PK an email asking whether they’re taking any students.

My application process was very straightforward. After sending in my CV and SoP, I was called directly for a brief chat with The (now Dr.) Dewan and Anu. Both of them have mentored and assisted me for extended periods with my projects, and I’ve learnt much more than just how to write research abstracts from them (including PTK’s art of cracking the best puns ever, and Anu’s art of subtle and effective sarcasm). Of course, I did destroy multiple servers in the process, but it was always forgiven within a week with restored access 🙂 After the first round, PTK and Anu recommended me to PK, who took the final screening.

All in all, it was a really smooth and professional process, much more to the point than the majority of the job interviews I’ve been taking recently. What still surprises me, is the fact that I’ve never come across another lab member who wasn’t given a task during the interview process. Guess it became mandatory after I clogged up a couple of servers hahaha?

My initial time at the lab seemed to be somewhat jinxed I’d say. The first two projects I worked on between Jan 2016 and April 2016 got scrapped in succession due to some technical issues. Both involved some analytics on data curated by an external agency. At this point it felt like a “local minima”, and I started wondering whether I was doing something wrong. When I meekly pointed it out, thankfully PK intervened and explained how it was not at all an issue on my end, and I should be expressing my thoughts more frequently rather than overthinking. That’s one thing I’ve always kept in mind, and tried to improve upon. Yes, folks, communication is the key.!

The summer of sixteen nights

During Summer ’16, PK gave me the opportunity to go spend some time at IIIT Hyderabad. They were hosting IASNLP over two weeks (16 nights :P) and had invited some people from Precog. He explained that we would like to do some work with code switched social network text, and gave me a free hand to Indira, Mallika and I to work on whatever we like.

IASNLP proved to be an extremely important stepping stone for me, as it was my first introduction to computational linguistics and machine learning (something I am working on till date!) Upon returning, we finalised our target to be a set of low level tools (LIDF, POS tagger, NER, Sentiment) for English – Hindi code switched text. Although I didn’t realise it back then, the problem was not as trivial as I thought. In fact, I ended up working on it for almost a complete year (taking it up as my BTech Project eventually), and finally published it at ACL this year (link and link).

 

Lab members and interns, summer 0f 2016. Missing a lot of people here

Why Precog?

Being a part of Precog is much larger than just completing your thesis/ project. When you’re a member of Precog, you’re a member of Precog. Weekly group updates keep you up to date with what’s going around in the lab. Regular paper reading sessions keep you updated with the cutting edge in areas other people are working in (I’d admit I wasn’t able to take full advantage of this, something I deeply regret). If I had to cherry-pick five top reasons I’m gonna miss being here

  • I got access to whatever resources I required to work. Anshuman, Divam and I constantly used to fight over GPU servers. PK noticed and ordered a separate one for each project 😀
  • Members are extremely helpful. If you ever need to get a code or paper draft review, all you need to do is shoot an email on the mailing list. And it is not just work. There were countless times I’ve pestered Anu/PTK/Srishti/NS and even PK to review my SoP for various applications!
  • There’s no need to be diplomatic. When it comes to work, people expect you to speak freely what’s on your mind. Even if it hurts sentiments.
  • Just like the IIITD culture, there is no concept of senior / junior / “call me sir/ma’am” amongst members. I think we inherit this really well from our college. Anu kept a special jar where you had to put in 10 bucks every time you called her ma’am :’)
  • We don’t just work together, we party together too, and a lot! Apart from regular PK treats at Barbeque Nation and sometimes even his apartment (how many of you can boast of having had dinner in the faculty residence :P), often we head out to GK after a tiring week (PTK always seemed to be fixated with The Beer Cafe for some reason).

You never walk alone. Winter 2017 semester, I took a break from college. On the eve of Precog’s birthday, members called me up via Skype for the celebrations 😀

To say Precog has played an instrumental role in shaping who I am today would be a massive understatement. I’ve spent more than half my undergrad life associated this lab, its members and its wonderful wonderful machines (JARVIS, FRIDAY and DEXTER). I have failed to produce results multiple times, missed multiple paper deadlines and annoyed a lot of members. However each time, I’ve learnt something really important, which allowed me to succeed in the end. And oh boy, when I finally got a paper accept (two in a row in fact, ACL SRW and SocialNLP @ ACL!), it was a beautiful closure.

PK and I after my (almost) convocation in August this year

What I’m grateful and indebted for, is the fact that I was allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. An essential piece of PK “gyan” (knowledge, for the non-Hindi speakers) which I’ve valued increasingly over the years, is that “working hard is good, working smart is better”. Choosing your battles is as equally important as working hard to win your battles. To succeed, I think it’s essential to surround yourself with people that believe in you. My journey with Precog was certainly not easy, it had its fair share of ups and down. However, it comprised of everything that was required for me to get out of my comfort zone and succeed.

A Summer to Remember

I spent my summer 2018 at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) as a Robotics Institute Summer Scholar (RISS). It is one of the most sought-after internship programs out there, partly as it is hosted by CMU and partly as it allows you to immerse yourself into research in the field of Computer Science. I had spent my past two years at Precog working under PK on several developmental and research projects. I was hesitant at first while applying for the program as I was not sure if my experience was enough to have a decent shot at selection. As the application deadline approached I thought to at least give it a try and was able to submit it just in time. The next few months were filled with eager anticipation for the result and it was on 14th March that I received an interview call from my to-be mentor at CMU. After my interview, I was informed regarding the confirmation of my selection in the program at the end of March after two long months.

The summer began with the orientation of ~35 scholars from around the world. I was working in Intelligent Coordination and Logistics Lab (ICLL) led by Dr. Stephen Smith along with Dr. Isaac Isukapati. I worked on two projects during my time there. The first project was regarding developing a traffic simulation which incorporates a bus dwell time model built using Bayesian hierarchical inference. The second project involved testing and developing an IOS app which would help visually impaired people to cross the intersections using minimal gestures. Both of the projects had SURTRAC at the heart of the problem statement. SURTRAC is a system developed by ICLL to make intersections smarter by seeing the oncoming traffic using the DSRC technology to change the phases of traffic lights. I worked on these projects with Aidan – another member of the cohort and one of the best colleague you could ask for.

With Dr. Stephen Smith and Aidan during the poster session
With Dr. Stephen, Dr. Isaac, and Aidan during the closing ceremony

RISS was an enriching and a holistic experience. I met with some wonderful people during the time and made some lasting friendships. This program not only focuses on encouraging students to heavily engage in research but also allows you to build yourself in an all-round manner. During the summer I got the opportunity to attend the RSS conference at CMU. It was at this conference that I got to interact with world-class researchers and even attended a talk by Dr. Sergey Levine.  We as a cohort also had the opportunity to visit the office of the mayor and interact with a councilperson regarding our internship. This platform provides several opportunities like the UBTech and DJI workshops where we worked with drones and a humanoid robot, which to my surprise were given to us at the end to take back home. It felt like I was learning something new in every second that I spent there. Initially, I used to think of research in a more technical way with a narrow-minded focus on results rather than what the results we’re trying to convey but after regular philosophical discussions with my mentor, I got to know that it is much more than that.

Humanoid robot One with everyone!
During one of our late night walks! L-to-R: Mononito, Akari, Kyuto, Aidan
At the mayor’s office. L-to-R: Dr. John Dolan (Program Director), Me, Mononito :), Nick, Ziqi, Ms.                             Rachel Burcin (Program Co-program Director), Hameed, Yike

I owe most of my success to Precog which has been an intrinsic part of my career for the past two years. They are a bunch of people who genuinely care for you and are willing to help if you face any issues regardless of its triviality. They are highly welcoming for new students and make them feel like a part of a family. The weekly group discussions allowed me to ensure regular progress and brainstorm ideas to fix any issues that I would face in my project. I highly recommend everyone to be a part of Precog and experience the warmth of this family.

A life that most Indian students couldn’t even imagine!

Disclaimer: This blog is about an experience of a lifetime in two years. So, bear with me if I am too detailed in the write-up 🙂

It was my final year of undergraduate studies when I used to Chair the ACM Student Chapter of my college. My team was looking to invite an academician for a talk and thus, was scrolling down a list of Worldwide ACM Distinguished Speakers. That’s when I first heard of a IIITD Professor who works on Social Networks. But no one knew that inviting him was going to change the next two.. pardon the next “n” years of my life! I have always dreamt and strived to become world’s one of the most impactful speakers more than anything else. Watching and listening to PK’s one-hour ACM talk on “Privacy and Security in Online Social Media” was surely a teaser of what I always desire to achieve. That single-hour talk wasn’t only about the magic he creates as a speaker; rather, it was also my first step towards one of the very few research groups in India which believe in Computing for Social Good.

Day 0: Mini shocks complementary with newbie package

High Voltage: After clearing the rigorous selection process of the group, involving a challenging task and tricky interviews, there I was, on my first day, entering the lab.

Okay, wait…
A research group. Check  ✅
Apparently, some of the smartest minds working. Check  ✅

What do you expect when you enter their workplace? A set of some very serious people, sticking their faces to the computer screens and minding their own jobs? Not really. As I walked towards the lab, I could hear 5-6 people shouting on the top of their voices, and as I entered, I found that the number is ~20 in a 16*12 sq. ft. room “politely” arguing over a methodology followed in a research paper. We cutely call this regular practice of ours as “Brainstorming Sessions”. Overwhelmed with the energy fields in that small magnetic field space (our lab), I was sure that this was the right place for me.

Old lab – Place from where it all started. Clicked the left one on my last day! The right one was clicked on one of the infinitely many occasions we celebrate 🙂

Unexpecting the unexpected: Now, my concern was whether I was good enough for the place. Just when I was introduced to the group and was so pumped up to rock the hell out of any project I’d be assigned, the following happened to be my first official project conversation with a senior:

“Have you worked on _____ technology?”,
“No”,
“No problem. Take your time. Learn it by tonight? We’ll start working tomorrow.”
“Ok, WHUTT?!” (That’s how my reflex worked xD )

To all those who believe in “settling in”, “taking some time in your new job”, it’s an illusion at Precog. Theoretically, you have time to settle in, but in reality, YOU DON’T. This constant time-crunch, in retrospect, always forced me to keep pushing my limits. In pursuit of matching the pace of the people around, I developed a habit to keep accelerating. That’s what Precog is – people chasing their own better version every single moment.

“Go beyond not just to meet expectations”

Next day. An hour-long meeting. The first project assigned to me and I became a victim of information overflow. There were technologies being used which I only read about in blogs of successful start-ups. The project was already on an unbelievable scale. Astonishment, excitement, and nervousness struck together when you realise that the job is not just to do some amazing stuff, but to top the brilliant piece of work achieved by three generations of Precogs.

Pulling off all-nighters to get the code talking to me, to build something that I will always be proud of, to meet close deadlines and nailing it – all this was honestly beyond my anticipation and simply unachievable without the people I worked with. The best part of Precog is that it continually increases your appetite for challenges and simultaneously, has enough resources to feed what it grows. So, when things had started settling in, the obvious happened. I wanted to have more on my plate.

That’s when I began working on a research submission for The Follower Count Fallacy project. Everything was different in this endeavour. More than being different, it was unexplored for me. Meanwhile, in an ongoing email conversation with PK, he sent me a slightly coded reply saying–

I couldn’t decode it until I delved into what was not my comfort zone – Research. I did know how to build things – how to “implement” a thought and bring it into reality, but research was a completely different ballgame. The effort was not just about finding solutions; it was more about taking a step back and asking the right questions. Apart from PK, I was fortunate to have a mentor who was supportive enough to walk me through in this endeavour. As much as she is a perfectionist, she helped me in my struggles, and failures, despite the time-crunch we used to have. It was her mentorship only which eventually enabled me decode PK’s message, i.e., when you work just to meet expectations, you set your boundaries and limit yourself from hitting higher. After all the failures, believe me, that the success tasted much better!

Amidst the process of exploring/struggling/failing/succeeding, you don’t realise when you actually become a Precog than being just a part of it. Late-night group brainstorming on somebody’s problem statement and debugging a program with teamwork had become a routine. It was now time to take up a third challenge apart from the two projects with me already. This was one for the team. I was given the responsibility to manage the humongous server infrastructure of Precog. Combine the infrastructure of some renowned universities, and we can beat them with ours. I clearly wasn’t skilled in handling this, but I was sure ready for this. Managing the resources for numerous students working on uncountable projects, along with several external collaborations – my plate was so full. I was struggling badly, and yet I was enjoying it!

Learning was surely at an exponential high during these two years. The challenges here didn’t only make me a better developer, researcher, or a better team player. It eventually made me a better thinker and a fighter!

After one of the deadlines successfully ended. Couldn’t be any happier during my RA-ship!

Two years, Seven cities, Sixteen places!

My decision of refusing two industry job offers to join a research group, which was a massive leap of faith, conveys the intensity of impact that PK creates on stage. Sharing stage with the man, who has spoken at places like Harvard and Stanford, was a dream. But, dreams do come true! It all began when PK had to deliver a technical session at a place. Everything was going smooth, we were done with three-fourths of the session when PK paused for a break and asked me whether I’d like to speak and deliver the remaining part. Omg! moment and in no time, I agreed to deliver my first ever professional tech session.

Since then, I got chances to present our work and deliver tech sessions with (and sometimes, without) PK at numerous occasions. I traveled to seven cities and interacted with people across the country. This enriching experience is special not only for the places I visited, or the sessions that I delivered; it is more about the impact we were able to create amongst the people we’d never known. Nothing of this was possible if I had not been a person that PK-Precog helped me become!

The Precog Orientation: Skills utilised sometimes at home too 🙂

PK an advisor, a friend and a role-model

At most academic places across the world including ones in India, there’s always this unsaid generational, professional and emotional gap between a professor and his students. You don’t particularly expect to go for a Biryani feast for dinner with a Prof, or play bowling and cricket with the whole group, or rock the dance floor together. Now, you get a hint of how unconventionally cool my advisor is.

The group’s energy is just a derivative of the amount of energy that he brings in. This energy is tremendous, contagious and honestly, was scary initially because I’d never worked with a personality as dynamic as his. He is a person who leads by example and whose actions inspire people to become as sincere in life as he is. The most amazing thing is that he has time for everyone and everything! From being actively involved in each of the innumerable projects that Precog is working on, to delivering university lectures, and then, traveling to places across the globe to deliver talks and sessions, to also take out time for going out, playing and enjoying with the group, he has this extraordinary time management skills.

Indeed, there are several research groups in India, but the differentiating factor that makes Precog incredible is the liberty you get in making decisions. This freedom in making choices develops a sense of ownership in you towards everything you pursue and allows you to be more open to experimentation and learning. All attributed to the PK-effect which flows in the group.

Words will always be less to quantify the influence he’s had on my mindset, career, and life in general. I will miss the infinite times of *knock-knock* at his office for discussing every small and big, good and bad moments in my professional as well as personal life. Just as he plays a pivotal role in impacting the lives of so many students around him, I hope I’ll be able to continue what I started in Precog and keep making a positive impact on people’s lives in my way.

A Big Fat Loving Family Precog

At Precog, it is so fascinating to experience the incredible pace at which strangers become friends, and friends become family! We take the slogan, “Work hard, party harder” so seriously that good and bad experiences were only an excuse for celebration. These people make every success look grander and every failure smaller.

I will definitely cherish the late night productive and unproductive discussions we had, the many #PrecogSocials we enjoyed, the pranks we planned on each other, the weird dance moves we discovered together, the jokes that made us roll on floor laughing, the board game conspiracies, the fight for free pizzas and the list would go on.

No matter how much work these people have, they’d be ready to solve your problem without looking at the clock. To your kind attention, I’m not just talking about a few people in the lab; we are in fact so huge a family that you’ll find at least one of us in every big place across the globe. And irrespective of the fact whether we know each other personally or not, a “Precog connection” is more than enough for one to go out of their ways to help the other. This fantastic connect with people is the foundation of Precog. And nothing would have existed without the cohesives of the group – The Pillars of Precog!

Pillars are they, as Precog stands on their shoulders – the Ph.D. students! There’s no way I could’ve achieved the delta within me without their support. The equation that I share with each of them is simply inexplicable and I feel nostalgic every second when I think of each of them. No matter what wrong or right is happening in my life, even if I have no idea what was happening in my life (which was the case mostly), they’d know me better and guide me in the right direction. Each big and small conversation with them made me wiser, and more charged up. Their presence has such tremendous influence on us, on the group that I think I have unknowingly acquired some notable traits of all five of them.

Okay, now imagine the energy level with these people in the 16*12 sq.ft. lab space I was talking about. Did you sense that? :’)

At last, I’d say that it is absolutely fine sometimes to take a calculated leap of faith because it is only then when you truly understand the impact of choices that you make in life. Consequently, you tend to experiment more wisely and collect richer experiences. Joining Precog was one such huge leap of faith that I took, and it turned out to be one of the most amazing times of my life.

Loads of love to everyone who played a role in making my journey so special!

PS: A huge shout out to my two elite Counterstrike (CS) team members. CS is of course only an excuse to mention the two brothers I found in this endeavour. It’s very rare in life, to find people whose frequencies match perfectly with yours. In life, we don’t ask for cover as we got each other’s backs already! To both of them – * Check bhijwa dena zara *

* Signing off for now *
– Kushagra Bhargava

Internship at MPI-SWS and a summer to cherish

I spent summer of 2018 (May – August) as an intern in Prof. Krishna P. Gummadi’s research group at MPI-SWS in Saarbrücken, Germany. It was an enthralling and enriching experience to work on cutting-edge and high impact research problems, interacting with some of the best researchers and PhD students in the world, and also making some amazing friends from across the globe. In this blog, I’ll try to recapitulate what was the most happening and enjoyable summer for me thus far.

First off, the question which I have been asked very often since I updated my internship status on LinkedIn and FB: how did you get in? Short answer: PK’s recommendation can take you places. Long Answer: I have been working with Precog for the past 2+ years now. My first project at Precog (and with PK) was a collaboration with Rijurekha Sen (who back then was a postdoctoral researcher at MPI-SWS). Our work got accepted to SIGMETRICS’17 as a poster, and then later to ICTD’17 as a full paper, which I believe buttressed my application greatly. I applied to MPI-SWS around October 2017 through their portal along with PK’s recommendation to my eventual advisor, Krishna P. Gummadi. I got an email from Krishna sometime in late December informing me that I had been selected! And that is my long story short. To sum it up, MPI-SWS has an amazing and very competitive internship program for which you’d be competing against Masters and PhD students from some of the top universities in the world like ETH Zürich, EPFL, GaTech to name a few. In such a case, being an undergrad from India, your best bet is to stand out through your work experience and most importantly, your recommendations.

After a tumultuous semester, summer finally arrived. At Precog we had been reading research papers by Krishna’s group and often considered those papers as seminal works in the field. The thought of working with pioneers of their field was exhilarating. I explored multiple projects during my time at MPI. I started by working on adversarial machine learning, then shifted gears to work on data fairness in automated decision making and then finally settled on dabbling with detecting and mitigating discrimination in targeted advertisements. I won’t make this blog insipid by delving into the nuances of these projects, but, in the process of ruminating on these nuances I gained a lot of insights into both technical and philosophical aspects of research some of which have had an indelible effect on me.

On the technical side, I learnt about various notions of fairness in decision making, learnt a great deal about attacks and defences on machine learning systems (particularly neural networks) and even proposed my own attacks and defences on targeted advertisement systems. In addition, we used to have weekly reading groups where we would take up some interesting concept and deconstruct it to get an intuitive feel of what’s going on. However, the most important skill I gained out of my internship was to understand the importance of asking the right questions. Often times in the past, I had been guilty of over-complicating things and selling my work behind a veil of buffed up jargons. However, it was during my internship I realised that science is about elucidating rather than obscuring. After long thought provoking discussions, meetings which would warp time, my outlook towards research has been broadened.

Here’s a picture with the group at MPI. L-to-R: Till; Junaid; Reza; Prof. Niloy Ganguly, IIT Kgp; Prof. Krishna P. Gummadi; Bilal; Myself; Koustuv (intern, PhD at GaTech); Ashmi (intern, MS CS at TUM)

While it may seem at this point that my internship was only work, it was far from it. Being in Europe bestows you to some of the most picturesque places in the world. Being a football fan, in the midst of a world cup, was an icing on the cake. I got to watch the final in Metz, a small football crazy city in France and watched the 2 french open finals: women’s singles and men’s doubles on court Philippe Chatrier. Of course my journey in Europe would be incomplete without mentioning the amazing (and not so expensive) ice creams! I’ll let the pictures do rest of the talking.

 

Some culinary delights.

 

French Open (above) and Le Petit France, Strasbourg (below)

To sum it up, I would strongly encourage anyone looking for research internships to apply to MPI-SWS. I sincerely thank Krishna for having me at MPI and PK for recommending me.

A Summer at Precog

Prof. PK visited my college, BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus in March 2018 and gave a talk. The last slide said that he wanted interns and that was an opportunity I wasn’t going to let go. I applied, and after a task and an interview, I was in. The internship process was really smooth and all issues were dealt with promptly. IIIT Delhi does not let bureaucracy hinder work and progress. I love this fact about IIIT-D. There are many such small conveniences that make a big impact by easing out students’ and researchers’ lives. Everyone’s time is valued here.

The best things about Precog is its people. There were RAs and PhDs who led projects and discussions. Research sometimes can be solitary work and often prone to small setbacks. For someone like me, who was venturing into research work for the first time, the support and help from the RAs and PhDs was very necessary. I’m pretty sure all the interns felt the same. The people at Precog intellectually feed off each others’ brains. The internal mailing lists are a proof for this. I learned new things everyday. Where else will you get paid to learn a lot 🙂 ? I’ve learnt from each and every person during the 2 months I spent in Delhi.

The Team <3

The culture at Precog has been influenced a lot by Randy Pausch. For those who don’t know him, stop reading this right now and read ‘The Last Lecture’ or watch the talk on YouTube. I adored the Randy Pausch memorabilia scattered throughout the lab and PK’s room. We used to have a WhatsUp, a short meeting where everyone told the status of their work, every alternate day. I felt that the WhatsUps were like Scrum standups, except every alternate day. They were helpful since anyone who was stuck could explain his/her problems and ask for help. People also got a general idea of what everyone was working on and they would pass on relevant research papers or articles around. About once or twice every week, PK would ask someone to summarize a research paper. I did that a couple of times and loved doing it. From never reading a research paper to summarizing long papers, I feel I’ve come a long way.

At Precog, we had our share of fun too. We regularly went out to Nehru Place(good food ftw!) in the evenings. PK hosted a party for all interns at Barbecue Nation, and it was great! PK couldn’t be with us then, but he made sure to video call us. Many such small gestures show his love for the team. At the start of the internship, Prof. PK told us “Work hard and have fun too.” The people here made sure we followed that 🙂 . A new habit that I picked up here was playing board games. I was introduced to Catan and Small World. The fact that they still work together after playing Catan just shows how strong their bond is! (Those who’ve played the game understand this 🙂 )

The work at Precog has a direct social impact. Work on many diverse projects goes on simultaneously. Just listening to others talk about their work helped me learn a lot more than I expected. Isn’t it great to learn stuff without putting in a lot of effort. I was lucky to see the speed with which the WhatsApp lynchings problem was attacked. Seeing your solutions affect the world is a really satisfying thing. The Lab windows have research papers authored by Precogers taped for people passing by to read. Looking at the amount of effort the people here put in, I’m sure the window is gonna be full soon.

I’m writing this blog a month after my internship was completed, and this has helped me understand and appreciate the things that I worked on and learned in the summers.

I would recommend undergrads to do a research based internship for the experience. The lessons that I’ve taken back are helping me a lot. One of the most important thing that I’ve learned is that you have to be patient to solve research problems. Getting such an attitude adjustment early on in one’s career is like finding a treasure. Feedback from the RAs and PhD folks helped me a lot with setting expectations. Expect too much and you’ll feel overwhelmed/discouraged. Expect too little, and you’re squandering away your talents. I appreciate the help with finding the thin line in between. I now notice that full time research work is a bit different than working on a project with a professor during the semester. Make sure you like the latter if you are considering a research based career.

During my initial interview with PK, I told him that I wanted to see if a career based in research was the right thing for me. The internship at IIIT D helped me confirm that it indeed was.

I really thank Prof. PK and Prof. Arun for this great opportunity!