New York Blog

Theory Day! Friday at Columbia

This Friday will be the 2012 Theory Day, co-organized by Columbia, NYU, and IBM. I’ve been to several and, as the blurb says, “in particular, students are encouraged to attend.”.

I was happy to see that Michael Kearns will be presenting his work on “Experiments in Social Computation”. I had the pleasure of seeing Kearns present this a few years ago at one of the “Simons Science Series” lectures (vimeo here). Kearns is a rare academic who has made fundamental contributions in theory, yet also understands how to apply this theory in the real world. Rajeev Motwani comes to mind as another professor I’ve heard described this way — someone whose work advanced the field in theoretical contributions, yet was also a great example to students as to how their academic work could be applied. (A Stanford PhD I know told me recently that, when he was starting a tech startup, the best business advisor he ever had was a winner of the Gödel Prize — Motwani.)

In Kearns’ case his work is in machine learning theory, where he had some of the early fundamental contributions, wrote a great book on computational learning theory, but also has been a consultant or advisor to some great startups and VC firms, started the Penn-Lehman automated trading competition, and more recently I noticed helped the energetic students from Penn’s Dining Philosophers Club by judging at one of their recent hackathons.

Also speaking will be researchers from Microsoft Research New England (in Cambridge, Boston), a lab which has really shown how a big tech company can still, even in 2012, provide a home for diverse and groundbreaking pure research — ranging from social computation to mathematical physics. When I visited there in February, I talked to Jennifer Chayes and Adam Kalai about how they not only have the freedom to do great research, but interact with the local student and startup communities via hackathons, tech talks, and other activities that improve the local nerdscape. It would be great if NYC had a similar lab, particularly now that Yahoo’s NYC R+D lab is rumored to be disbanding.


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