2023 AAAI Conference Blog – Amarpal Sahota

This blog post is written by AI CDT Student Amarpal Sahota

I attended the 37th AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence from the 7th of February 2023 to the 14th February. This was my first in person conference and I was excited to travel to Washington D.C.

The conference schedule included Labs and Tutorials February 7th – 8th , the main conference February 9th – 12th followed by the workshops on February 13th – 14th.

Arriving and Labs / Tutorials

I arrived at the conference venue on 7th February to sign in and collect my name badge. The conference venue (Walter E. Washington Convention Center) was huge and had within it everything you could need from areas to work or relax to restaurants and of course many halls / lecture theatres to host talks.

I was attending the conference to present a paper at the Health Intelligence Workshop. Two of my colleagues from the University of Bristol (Jeff and Enrico) were also attending to present at this workshop (we are pictured together below!).

The tutorials were an opportunity to learn from experts on topics that you may not be familiar with yourself. I attended tutorials on Machine Learning for Causal Inference, Graph Neural Networks and AI for epidemiological forecasting.

The AI for epidemiological forecasting tutorial was particularly engaging. The speakers were very good at giving an overview of historical epidemiological forecasting methods and recent AI methods used for forecasting before introducing state of the art AI methods that use machine learning combined with our knowledge of epidemiology. If you are interested, the materials for this tutorial can be accessed at : https://github.com/AdityaLab/aaai-23-ai4epi-tutorial .

Main conference Feb  9th – Feb 12th

The main conference began with a welcome talk in the ‘ball room’. The room was set up with a stage and enough chairs to seat thousands. The welcome talk introduced included an overview of the different tracks within the conference (AAAI Conference of AI, Innovative Application of AI, Educational Advances in AI) , statistics around conference participation / acceptance and introduced the conference chairs.

The schedule for the main conference each day included invited talks and technical talks running from 8:30 am to 6pm. Each day this would be followed by a poster session from 6pm – 8pm allowing us to talk and engage with researchers in more detail.

For the technical talks I attended a variety of sessions from Brain Modelling to ML for Time-Series / Data Streams and Graph-based Machine Learning. Noticeably, all of the sessions were not in person. They were hybrid, with some speakers presenting online. This was disappointing but understandable given visa restrictions for travel to the U.S.

I found that many of the technical talks became difficult to follow very quickly with these talks largely aimed at experts in the respective fields. I particularly enjoyed some of the time-series talks as these relate to my area of research. I also enjoyed the poster sessions that allowed us to talk with fellow researchers in a more relaxed environment and ask questions directly to understand their work.

For example, I enjoyed the talk ‘SVP-T: A Shape-Level Variable-Position Transformer for Multivariate Time Series Classification‘ by PhD researcher Rundong Zhuo. At the poster session I was able to follow up with Rundong to ask more questions and understand his research in detail.  We are pictured together below!

Workshops Feb 13th – 14th

I attended the 7th International Workshop On Health Intelligence from 13th to 14th February. The workshop began with opening remarks from the Co-chair Martin Michalowski before a talk by our first keynote speaker. This was Professor Randi Foraker who  spoke about her research relating to building trust in AI for Improving Health Outcomes.

This talk was followed by paper presentations with papers on related topics grouped into sessions. My talk was in the second session of the day titled ‘Classification’. My paper (pre-print here) is titled ‘A Time Series Approach to Parkinson’s Disease Classification from EEG’. The presentation went reasonably smoothly and I had a number of interesting questions from the audience about  applications of my work and the methods I had used. I am pictured giving the talk below!

The second half of the day focused on the hackathon. The theme of the hackathon was biological age prediction. Biological ageing is a latent concept with no agreed upon method for estimation. Biological age tries to capture a sense of how much you have aged in the time you have been alive. Certain factors such as stress and poor diet can be expected to age individuals faster. Therefore two people of the same chronological age may have different biological ages.

The hackathon opened with a talk on biological age prediction by Morgan Levin (The founding Principal Investigator at Altos Labs). Our team for the hackathon included four people from the University of Bristol – myself , Jeff , Enrico and Maha. Jeff (pictured below) gave the presentation for our team. We would have to wait until the second day of the conference to find out if we won one of the three prizes.

The second day of the workshop consisted of further research talks, a poster session and an awards ceremony in the afternoon. We were happy to be awarded the 3rd place prize of $250 for the hackathon! The final day concluded at around 5pm. I said my good byes and headed to Washington D.C. airport for my flight back to the U.K

Through the AI of the storm – Emily Vosper at the Allianz climate risk award 2022

This blog post is written by CDT Student Emily Vosper

This December I travelled to Munich, Germany, to take part in the Allianz climate risk award. Allianz set up this initiative to acknowledge the work done by young scientists who aim to build resilience to and/or reduces the risk of extreme weather events that are exacerbated by climate change. The award is open to PhD candidates and post-doctoral researchers who first submit an essay that outlines their work and the top four are invited to Munich where they present to the Allianz team.

In previous years, finalists have been working on very different climate hazards, but by chance this year the finalists all came from a tropical cyclone and/or flooding background. The finalists consisted of Mona Hemmati (Columbia University) who is a postdoctal researcher specialising in flood-related risks in tropical cyclones, Peter Pfeiderer (Humboldt University Berlin) whose work includes studying seasonal forecasts of tropical cyclones and Daniel Kahl (University of California) who studies flood exposure on a demographic level to understand community vulnerability for his PhD.

On Monday evening, the finalists were invited to meet the Allianz climate risk team at a Bavarian tapas bar. This evening was a great opportunity to get to know a bit about each other in a more relaxed setting, and a chance to sample some of the local cuisine!

On Tuesday, we met at the Allianz offices for the award day. With an excited buzz in the air, the event commenced with a keynote talk by Dr. Nicola Ranger, Oxford University, who spoke on the need to implement climate resilient finance strategies and during the Q and A session there was active discussion on how this could be achieved effectively. We also heard from Chris Townsend, a member of the board of management for Allianz SE, who introduced us to Allianz’ legacy and highlighted the exciting work going on in the climate risk space. We then heard engaging talks from Mona and Peter before a coffee break, followed by an articulate talk from Daniel. As the final speaker, I rounded off the presentation with my talk about how I’ve been using a generative adversarial network to enhance the resolution of tropical cyclone rainfall data. All presentations were followed by a group Q and A session where we discussed the exciting possibility of a collaboration between the four of us as our projects are very complimentary in nature.

With the award in its sixth year, there is now an alumni network of previous finalists rich with expertise in climate hazards and ample opportunity for future collaboration, so watch this space!

Left to Right: Holger Tewes-Kampelmann (CEO Allianz Reinsurance), Peter Pfeiderer (Humboldt University Berlin), Dr. Sibylle Steimen (MD Advisory & Services, Allianz Reinsurance), Emily Vosper (University of Bristol), Mona Hemmati (Columbia University), Daniel Kahl (UC Irvine), Chris Townsend (Member of the Board of Management, Allianz SE) and Dr. Nicola Ranger (Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford University).

BIAS 22 Review Day 1 – Daniel Bennett “Complexity and Embodiment in Human Computer Interaction”

This blog post is written/edited by CDT Students  Amarpal Sahota and Oliver Deane

This was a thought provoking starting point and one that clearly has a large impact on human computer interaction.  Daniel stated that this is a line of research in psychology, cognitive science, and robotics, that has run somewhat parallel to mainstream psychology.

One of the initiators of this was James J Gibson. Gibson and others in the last 70 years did a lot of work on how we use resources outside of just the brain, in our environment and in our bodies, and coordinate all of these together to behave effectively.  Daniel stated that with the lens of embodiment we start focusing on processes, interactions, and relations, and the dynamics that follow and this is primarily a change in how we model things.

Therefore, to summarize one could consider the traditional cognitive model as a linear system. First we sense the world, then we form a representation of that world in our brain. Then the representation gets processed through a bunch of neatly defined modules, updates existing plans and intentions, and results in some representation of an action, which we then carry out. The embodied view is more complex as we are not simply in the world but also a part of it.  The world is changing constantly, and our behaviour and cognition is simply another physical process in this world.

At a high-level embodied approaches consider behaviour in the world as a kind of continual adjustment and adaptation, with most behaviours are grounded in a kind of improvisatory, responsive quality. Daniel shared a good example of this from Lucy Suchman related to canoeing where you may have an idea of your plan as you look down the river ‘I need to stay left there, slow down over there’ but at execution time you have to adapt your plan.

Daniel stated that a lot of work has been done observing a wide range of human behaviours, from technology interaction, to manning air-traffic control centres and crewing ships. In all of these contexts it is argued that our embodied skills – our adaptation and our implicit skills of coordination with the mess of the situation as it plays out – are the most important factor in determining outcomes.

Human Computer Interaction is increasingly focused on complex behaviours. Daniel talked about the idea that we’re going to do more and more in augmented reality and virtual reality. Computing will be integrated to support a wide range of everyday behaviours, which are not conventionally “cognitive” – you’re not sitting and thinking and making only very small movements with your fingers on a keyboard.

Daniel has a particular interest in musical performance and coordination of musicians. His perspective is that musical performance with technology, technology supported sports training and gaming, particularly team multiplayer games, are cases where static models of cognition seem to break down. He believes modelling in terms of processes and synchronization has great power.

Daniel then spoke about how interaction effects are important in Human Computer Interaction. Firstly, giving the example that notifications influence a person to use their phone. Secondly, the more a person uses their phone the more they cause notifications to appear. He posed the interesting question, how does one disentangle this hypothesis to find out the degree to which notifications influence us?

Daniel then spoke about how reciprocal, interaction dominant effects also play a significant role in the organisation of our individual skilled behaviour. He gave us an overview of his own research where he found evidence of interaction dominant coordination processes in a simple skilful game task, where users are asked to control a cursor to herd sheep.

AI Worldbuilding Contest – Future Life Institute

This blog post is written by CDT Students Tashi Namgyal and  Vanessa  Hanschke.

Two Interactive AI CDT students were part of a team that won third place in the AI Worldbuilding Contest run by the Future of Life Institute along with their three non-CDT teammates. In this blog post, we would like to tell you more about the competition, its goals and our team’s process of creating the submission.

The Future of Life Institute describe themselves as “an independent non-profit that works to reduce extreme risks from transformative technologies, as well as steer the development and use of these technologies to benefit life”. Besides running contests, their work consists of running grants programs for research projects, educational outreach or engaging in AI policymaking internationally and nationally in the US.

The worldbuilding competition was aimed at creating a discussion around a desirable future, in which Artificial General Intelligence (AI that can complete a wide range of tasks roughly as well as humans) played a major role in shaping the world. The deliverables included a timeline of events until 2045, two “day in the life” short stories, 13 answers to short question prompts and a media piece.

While dystopian or utopian visions of our future are quite commonplace in science fiction, the particular challenge of the competition was to provide an account of the future that was both plausible and hopeful. This formulation raised a lot of questions such as: For whom will the future be hopeful in 2045? How do we resolve or make progress towards existing crises such as climate change that threaten our future? We discussed these questions at length in our meetings before we even got to imagining concrete future worlds.

Our team was composed of different backgrounds and nationalities: we had two IAI CDT PhD students, one civil servant, one Human Computer Interaction researcher and one researcher in Creative Informatics. We were brought together by our shared values, interests, friendship, and our common homes, Bristol and Edinburgh. We tried to exploit these different backgrounds to provide a diverse picture of what the future could look like. We generated future visions for domains that could be influenced by Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), that are often low-tech, but a core part of human society such as art and religion.

To fit the project into our full-time working week, we decided that we would meet weekly during the brainstorming phase to collect ideas and create drafts for stories, events and question prompts on a Miro board. Each week we would also set each other small tasks to build a foundation of our world in 2045, for example everyone had to write a day in the life story for their own life in 2045. We then chose a weekend closer to the deadline, where we had a “Hackathon”-like intense two days to work on more polished versions of all the different parts of the submission. During this weekend we went through each other’s answers, gave each other feedback and made suggestions to make the submission more cohesive. Our team was selected as one of the 20 finalists out of 144 entries and there was a month for the public to give feedback on whether people felt inspired by or would like to live in such worlds, before the final positions were judged by FLI.

Thinking about how AI tools may be used or misused in the future is a core part of the Interactive AI CDT. The first-year taught module on Responsible AI introduces concepts such as fairness, accountability, transparency, privacy and trustworthiness in relation to AI systems. We go through case studies of where these systems have failed in each regard so we can see how ethics, law and regulation apply to our own PhD research, and in turn how our work might impact these things in the future. In the research phase of the programme, the CDT organises further workshops on topics such as Anticipation & Responsible Innovation and Social & Ethical Issues and there are international conferences in this area we can join with our research stipends, such as FAccT.

If you are curious, you can view our full submission here or listen to the podcast, which we submitted as media piece here. In our submission, we really tried to centre humanity’s place in this future. In summary, the world we created was to make you feel the future, really imagine your place in 2045. Current big tech is not addressing the crises of our times including inequality, climate change, war, and pestilence. Our world seeks to imagine a future where human values are still represented – our propensity for cooperation, creativity, and emotion. But we had to include a disclaimer for our world: our solutions are still open to risk of human actors using them for ill purposes. Our solution for regulating AGI was built on it being an expensive technology in the hand of few companies and regulated internationally, but we tried to think beyond the bounds of AGI. We imagine a positive future grounded in a balanced climate, proper political, social and economic solutions to real world problems, and where human dignity is maintained and respected.




My Experience of Being a Student Ambassador

This week’s blog post is written by CDT Student Grant Stevens

Widening participation involves the support of prospective students from underrepresented backgrounds to access university. The covered students include, but are not limited to, those:

  • from low-income backgrounds and low socioeconomic groups
  • who are the first in their generation to consider higher education
  • who attend schools and colleges where performance is below the national average
  • who are care experienced
  • who have a disability
  • from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds.

Due to my background and school, I matched the widening participation criteria for universities and was eligible for some fantastic opportunities. Without which I would not be in the position I am today.

I was able to attend a residential summer school in 2012 hosted by the University of Bristol. We were provided with many taster sessions for a wide variety of courses on offer from the university. I had such a good time that I applied the year after to attend the Sutton Trust Summer School, which was also held at Bristol uni.

A bonus of these opportunities was that those who took part were provided with a contextual offer (up to two grades below the standard entry requirement for their course), as well as a guaranteed offer (or guaranteed interview if the course required it). These types of provisions are essential to ensure fair access for those who may be disadvantaged by factors outside of their control. In my case, the reduced offer was vital as my final A-Level grades would have led to me missing out on the standard offer.

Although I enjoyed the taster sessions and loved the city, the conversations I had with the student ambassadors had the most impact on me and my aspirations for university. Hearing about their experiences and what they were working on at university was incredibly inspiring.

Due to how impactful it had been hearing from current students, I signed up to be a student ambassador myself when I arrived at Bristol. It’s a job that I have found very enjoyable and extremely rewarding. I have been very fortunate in having the opportunity to interact with so many people from many different backgrounds.

I am now entering my 7th year as a student ambassador for the widening participation and outreach team. I still really enjoy my job, and throughout this time, I have found that working on summer schools always turns out to be the highlight of my year. I’m not sure whether this is because I know first-hand the impact being a participant on these programmes can have or because over the week, you can really see the students coming out of their shells and realising that they’re more than capable of coming to a university like Bristol.

Being in this role for so long has also made me realise how much of an impact the pandemic can have on these types of programmes. I was relieved that at Bristol, many of these schemes have been able to continue in an online form. The option of 100% online programmes has its benefits but also its limitations. It allows us to expand our audience massively as we no longer have spacing restraints. However, zoom calls cannot replace physically visiting the university or exploring the city when choosing where to study. That’s why hearing from current students about their course and what to expect at university is more important than ever. For this reason, I have started to branch out to help with schemes outside of the university. I have presented talks for schools through the STEM Ambassador programme; I recently gave a talk to over 100 sixth formers during the Engineering Development Trust’s Insight into University course, and I also look forward to working with the Sutton Trust to engage with students outside of just Bristol.

In the last few years since starting my PhD, my message to students has changed a little. It has often been about “what computer science isnt.” clearing up misconceptions about what the subject at uni entails. That is still part of my talks; however, now I make sure to put in a section on how I got where I am today. It wasn’t plane sailing, and definitely not how I would have imagined a “PhD student’s” journey would go: from retaking a whole year in sixth form to having a very poor track record with exams at undergrad. I think it’s really important to let students know that regardless of their background, and even when things really don’t go to plan, it’s still possible to go on to do something big like a PhD. That is something I would’ve loved to hear back in school, so hopefully, it’s useful for those thinking (and potentially worrying) about uni now.

Some of the best people I’ve met and the best memories I’ve had at university have come from my student ambassador events. It’s something I feel very passionate about and find very enjoyable and rewarding. I have been very fortunate with the opportunities that have been available to me and am incredibly grateful as, without them, I wouldn’t be studying at Bristol, let alone be doing a PhD. By being a part of these projects, I hope I can inspire the next set of applicants in the same way my ambassadors inspired me.