Sunday, July 05, 2015

EPFL IC Research Day

EPFL (Lausanne, Switzerland) School of Computer and Communication Sciences did a Research Day celebration on June 30, 2015.

Typically these research days tend to focus on big tangibles, maybe Big Data (research day in 2014), Drones, Brains, Digital Humanities or something of that ilk. What or who would instigate the Audacity of Theoretical Computer Science? Philippe Gillet  (wish I had more time to talk to him, his research on extraterrestial matter as well as formation of Alps seems interesting) who opened the event told us, Nisheeth passionately defended/projected Theory and that eventually led to this outcome, a research day on The Computational Universe. Dean James Larus followed, and noted that EPFL was voted the best young university in the world. I have served on committees with Jim and know that he will be a serious dean, he has a superb taste on what to showcase and support, quiet professionalism on what needs work in the background, and a solid academic and research sense.

Nisheeth's reach for the ethereal in fundamental theory (Avi W) and theory in flight (Christos P.) played out wonderfully. Avi is our spokesperson for what we know, dont know and want to know; Christos is our ambassador to new lands. Avi, his eyes in constant wonder, spoke about efficient computation, connection to Internet security and limits of human knowledge at the boundary of P vs NP. Avi described how computation arises everywhere,  developed P, NP classes with key examples,  emphasized the universality of NP completeness and ended with a picture of the computational universe, stars in the background. An earlier version of the talk is here.  Christos was introduced as a rock star, and he is. He put science under the computational lens, and discussed Physics (Led to it from Feynmann and is double sided questions about quantum phenomena <-> computing), Economics (Led to it from Nash and equilibria) and eventually to Life itself (neurons in computing, evolution, sex, and thus all of life). He discussed Valiant's vicinal algorithms and their recent extension with PJOINs. His performance was so total that someone in the audience was led to ask if we should be seeking help from theology and philosophy as computational supplements to make progress, and Christos solemnly said, we are and we will. 

It was great to visit EPFL, see friends like Matt Grossglauser (back in EPFL after heading Nokia research lab,  he keeps making important progress each year with prior work on understanding kickstarter to current work on predicting local elections), Pablo Rodriguez (continues to combine cuisine, soccer and telecom), Martin Vetterli (he is presiding over research at Swiss NSF, we spoke about what is achievable in the context of SFs, I am going to find  a way to spend a few days with him and work on wavelet problems, he is one of my favorites),  Elisa Celis (we have a lot in common, but mostly spoke about voluntary markets for user data and bandits with side info),  Della Chuang (am glad I got to watch the evolution of her art and design), and others. Among the projects I connected with in conversations was (a) how to market a local watchmaker,  (b) how to start an venture investment fund among academic folks, (c) TexelPoints app by Mintaton for the Island of Texel in Wadden Sea.

ps: I spoke about online advertising, or how to make billions doing theory. Here is a toned down version, I will be expanding this talk more over time. 



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