Category Archives: conferences

NIPS 2017 Report


This year’s NIPS gave me a general sense that near-term AI safety is now mainstream and long-term safety is slowly going mainstream. On the near-term side, I particularly enjoyed Kate Crawford’s keynote on neglected problems in AI fairness, the ML security workshops, and the Interpretable ML symposium debate that addressed the “do we even need interpretability?” question in a somewhat sloppy but entertaining way. There was a lot of great content on the long-term side, including several oral / spotlight presentations and the Aligned AI workshop.

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Tokyo AI & Society Symposium

I just spent a week in Japan to speak at the inaugural symposium on AI & Society – my first conference in Asia. It was inspiring to take part in an increasingly global conversation about AI impacts, and interesting to see how the Japanese AI community thinks about these issues. Overall, Japanese researchers seemed more open to discussing controversial topics like human-level AI and consciousness than their Western counterparts. Most people were more interested in near-term AI ethics concerns but also curious about long term problems.

The talks were a mix of English and Japanese with translation available over audio (high quality but still hard to follow when the slides are in Japanese). Here are some tidbits from my favorite talks and sessions.

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Highlights from the ICLR conference: food, ships, and ML security

It’s been an eventful few days at ICLR in the coastal town of Toulon in Southern France, after a pleasant train ride from London with a stopover in Paris for some sightseeing. There was more food than is usually provided at conferences, and I ended up almost entirely subsisting on tasty appetizers. The parties were memorable this year, including one in a vineyard and one in a naval museum. The overall theme of the conference setting could be summarized as “finger food and ships”.


There were a lot of interesting papers this year, especially on machine learning security, which will be the focus on this post. (Here is a great overview of the topic.)

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AI Safety Highlights from NIPS 2016


This year’s Neural Information Processing Systems conference was larger than ever, with almost 6000 people attending, hosted in a huge convention center in Barcelona, Spain. The conference started off with two exciting announcements on open-sourcing collections of environments for training and testing general AI capabilities – the DeepMind Lab and the OpenAI Universe. Among other things, this is promising for testing safety properties of ML algorithms. OpenAI has already used their Universe environment to give an entertaining and instructive demonstration of reward hacking that illustrates the challenge of designing robust reward functions.

I was happy to see a lot of AI-safety-related content at NIPS this year. The ML and the Law symposium and Interpretable ML for Complex Systems workshop focused on near-term AI safety issues, while the Reliable ML in the Wild workshop also covered long-term problems. Here are some papers relevant to long-term AI safety:

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OpenAI unconference on machine learning

Last weekend, I attended OpenAI’s self-organizing conference on machine learning (SOCML 2016), meta-organized by Ian Goodfellow (thanks Ian!). It was held at OpenAI’s new office, with several floors of large open spaces. The unconference format was intended to encourage people to present current ideas alongside with completed work. The schedule mostly consisted of 2-hour blocks with broad topics like “reinforcement learning” and “generative models”, guided by volunteer moderators. I especially enjoyed the sessions on neuroscience and AI and transfer learning, which had smaller and more manageable groups than the crowded popular sessions, and diligent moderators who wrote down the important points on the whiteboard. Overall, I had more interesting conversation but also more auditory overload at SOCML than at other conferences.

To my excitement, there was a block for AI safety along with the other topics. The safety session became a broad introductory Q&A, moderated by Nate Soares, Jelena Luketina and me. Some topics that came up: value alignment, interpretability, adversarial examples, weaponization of AI.


AI safety discussion group (image courtesy of Been Kim)

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Highlights from the Deep Learning Summer School


A few weeks ago, Janos and I attended the Deep Learning Summer School at the University of Montreal. Various well-known researchers covered topics related to deep learning, from reinforcement learning to computational neuroscience (see the list of speakers with slides and videos). Here are a few ideas that I found interesting in the talks (this list is far from exhaustive):

Cross-modal learning (Antonio Torralba)

You can do transfer learning in convolutional neural nets by freezing the parameters in some layers and retraining others on a different domain for the same task (paper). For example, if you have a neural net for scene recognition trained on real images of bedrooms, you could reuse the same architecture to recognize drawings of bedrooms. The last few layers represent abstractions like “bed” or “lamp”, which apply to drawings just as well as to real images, while the first few layers represent textures, which would differ between the two data modalities of real images and drawings. More generally, the last few layers are task-dependent and modality-independent, while the first few layers are the opposite.

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Highlights and impressions from NIPS conference on machine learning

This year’s NIPS was an epicenter of the current enthusiasm about AI and deep learning – there was a visceral sense of how quickly the field of machine learning is progressing, and two new AI startups were announced. Attendance has almost doubled compared to the 2014 conference (I hope they make it multi-track next year), and several popular workshops were standing room only. Given that there were only 400 accepted papers and almost 4000 people attending, most people were there to learn and socialize. The conference was a socially intense experience that reminded me a bit of Burning Man – the overall sense of excitement, the high density of spontaneous interesting conversations, the number of parallel events at any given time, and of course the accumulating exhaustion.

Some interesting talks and posters

Sergey Levine’s robotics demo at the crowded Deep Reinforcement Learning workshop (we showed up half an hour early to claim spots on the floor). This was one of the talks that gave me a sense of fast progress in the field. The presentation started with videos from this summer’s DARPA robotics challenge, where the robots kept falling down while trying to walk or open a door. Levine proceeded to outline his recent work on guided policy search, alternating between trajectory optimization and supervised training of the neural network, and granularizing complex tasks. He showed demos of robots successfully performing various high-dexterity tasks, like opening a door, screwing on a bottle cap, or putting a coat hanger on a rack. Impressive!

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