AI Conference Feature

NeurIPS 2018 Through the Eyes of First-Timers

First-timers to NeurIPS — the world's most prestigious machine learning conference — can explore and enjoy a tech environment full of energy, innovations, and mind-blowing discussions among people studying and working in AI.

First-timers to NeurIPS — the world’s most prestigious machine learning conference — can explore and enjoy a tech environment full of energy, innovations, and mind-blowing discussions among people studying and working in AI. However, with almost 9,000 attendees packing a single venue for a week, NeurIPS can also be a bit overwhelming. Synced asked NeurIPS 2018 attendees to share their first-timer experiences.

Pre Conference – getting to know NeurIPS

The first rule of visiting NeurIPS is registering for NeurIPS — and that is nowhere near as simple as it sounds. Unless you’re Geoffrey Hinton or have had your paper accepted, you’ll have to join the virtual queue like everyone else and hope for the best. This year’s tickets sold out within 12 minutes.

Prior to the NeurIPS Dec 2 start in Montréal, Synced created a social group called “First timers @NeurIPS 2018” on the official conference app Whova. More than 300 messages were exchanged through the conference, with first timers introducing themselves and arranging meetups at and around the venue.

Synced noticed many first timers were messaging regarding different conference sessions, and how to prepare for the talks. Using time efficiently is very important at NeurIPS, as there is much to choose from.

Tutorials and workshops. Jane Street researcher Chris Hardin breaks it down: “A tutorial is typically a crash course on a topic, an opportunity for non-experts in that area to learn from experts. A workshop is a set of talks and papers with a shared focus, generally original research, a chance for experts to share with fellow experts (and motivated non-experts).”

What about the oral presentations? During the conference, researchers present their work during via posters and scheduled oral presentations. NeurIPS 2018 categorized these into regular oral presentations of fifteen-minute each and five minutes “Spotlight” sessions.

The 2018 conference introduced “Expo Day,” where 32 companies from various industries showcased their advanced AI products and services in 15 talks and panels, 17 demonstrations, and ten workshops. The Expo area opened prior to the conference launch, allowing visitors to check it off their lists on Sunday.

All the NeurIPS tutorials happened on Monday. Oral presentations and invited talks were held Tuesday through Thursday, with researchers conducting poster sessions between the talks. Workshops took place on Friday and Saturday.

For first-timers a first step to using time efficiently is establishing a realistic balance between interests and energy. With almost 80 talks and 300 poster sessions happening on the same day, it’s important to do your homework and set priorities. For example, on Wednesday Synced decided to follow the “RL and Neuroscience” track, which included 10 talks in the morning and 14 talks in the afternoon.

DO NOT even try to attend every single talk. Synced noticed more than a few exhausted young attendees dozing off in their chairs. University of Toronto PhD student Jesse Bettencourt told us that at his first conference last year in Long Beach he was “too keen to do all the things… waking up to go the very first talk every day, and very quickly got burned out.” Bettencourt says smarter scheduling was one of his most important takeaways from Long Beach.

during the conference – it’s okay to be a first timer

Alongside the talks and so on, another big reason for attending conferences is to meet people and network. A NeurIPS survey however concluded that “being a relative newcomer at the conference is particularly challenging when one does not come from a well-known university (in the NIPS community) and/or one who does not work with a ‘famous’ advisor (in the NIPS community).” Many comments in the Synced group reflected this first-timers’ anxiety; while others discussed strategies for getting recognized by peers.

Registrations

Of course everyone’s first time is different. Attending his 12th NeurIPS, University of Toronto Assistant Professor David Duvenaud recalled “the first time I went was even before I went to grad school, and everybody was just incredibly welcoming and kind and patient.” Duvenaud told Synced that although he didn’t really know the AI basics the first time he went to a NeurIPS conference, he simply asked questions at the poster sessions and researchers were more than willing to answer and explain. The atmosphere of sharing inspired him: “It seemed like a good field to be a part of.” Professor David Duvenaud and UT students Ricky Chen, Jesse Bettencourt, and Yulia Rubanova co-wrote one of this year’s best paper award winners, Neural Ordinary Differential Equations.

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Posting in Synced’s first-timers group, Data scientist Arnaud said he “speak(s) French and English and yet can’t seem to make connections… kind feel lonely at the conference.” His comment drew sympathetic responses: “Same here” and “You are not alone guy…” Arnaud told Synced he received many supportive messages and meet-up invites after the post.

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It may seem strange to first-timers, but much of the buzz at such digital tech conferences actually takes place with people huddled around ink and paper posters tacked to walls. It’s a long-standing tradition for researchers to introduce their work in scheduled poster sessions. The sessions attract huge crowds and provide an excellent opportunity to talk to researchers face-to-face and informally delve into topics of interest. As Professor Duvenaud explains, asking even very basic questions at poster sessions is totally acceptable, nobody will tell you to go away and read a textbook. Duvenaud’s PhD student, second-timer Jesse Bettencourt shared a similar observation: “NeurIPS is like that, people are going to explain their research, whether it’s for those already familiar with the background at a high level, or for onboarding people not familiar with the specific research area, to help them understand.”

Big names in the machine learning community also tend to drop by and photobomb poster sessions.

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At the conference registration desk, those attending for the first time were offered bright orange stickers identifying them as NeurIPS rookies. The stickers were welcome icebreakers and received positive feedback.

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What else can first-timers explore at the conference? A number of attendees shared networking tips with Synced. Conference veteran Duvenaud suggested first-timers “just randomly talk to someone at lunch.” Synced did just that, using Whova to join a lunch with 180 fellow first timers — including PhD student Felix, who told us “I’m fascinated by how kind and approachable the community is!” Almost every night during the conference, attendees could register for parties hosted by the likes of NVIDIA, Baidu, Element AI, etc.

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after the conference – what to expect

NeurIPS General Chair Samy Bengio told Synced that organizers are always looking at ways to improve future conferences. Program chair Hanna Wallach said NeurIPS is “being proactive and thinking about the future. If we want to be in the society that we want to live in, we have to start thinking about that now, and how we can get there.” For NeurIPS, a key focus is increasing inclusion and diversity.

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An increasing number of first-timers coming to NeurIPS are from outside academia or the traditional AI community, and NeurIPS organizers say they will continue working to make the conference environment more accommodating in this regard.

At the conference, organizers announced that NeurIPS 2019 & 2020 will be held in Vancouver, Canada. Synced is looking forward to it, and maybe we’ll see you there!


Journalist: Fangyu Cai | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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