Wednesday, December 11, 2013

NIPS and the Zuckerberg Visit

This past weekend, several hundred researchers, students, and hobbyists streamed into Lake Tahoe to attend a conference called Neural Information Processing Systems. NIPS is one of the two machine learning conferences of note (the other is ICML). Acceptance rates are low; prestige is high. Anyone interested in machine learning, statistics, applied math, or data can come to the conference but do expect to be bombarded by 10,000 terms that you don't know, even if you have a PhD.  

When we arrived and cracked open the workshop schedule, we found something very peculiar: 

3:00pm – 3:30pm: Q&A with Mark Zuckerberg”

What is the CEO of Facebook doing speaking at an academic conference on machine learning (and, nominally, neuroscience)? There's obviously a porous boundary between the corporate and academic worlds, but has it ever been this porous?

Ordinarily, when employees of Google, Microsoft, or Facebook show up at NIPS, they either (a) keep to the recruiting room or (b) are there to discuss & present research. The latter group, though they might be wearing their employer's logo on a t-shirt, engage with the conference as academics. Their status is derived from their research accomplishments. And this status does not shut down discourse: they will still field questions and suggestions in-person from any passing student. These kinds of interactions are encouraged at conferences like NIPS.  As a professor once told me when I was a graduate student “We need you guys, you’re the lifeblood of new ideas.”

In contrast, consider the presence of Mark Zuckerberg.  I'm sure someone saw a legitimate need to encircle his Q&A session with armed guards, but nothing screams hierarchy like police at the door. The tone changed rapidly: accomplished professors became little more than lowly researchers shuffling into the Deep Learning workshop to see a Very Important Person speak. Zuckerberg couldn't help but disrupt the conference; the spectacle drew so many, that an adjacent workshop was paused to make room for the overflow. And equally distasteful is what went on behind the scenes.  The conference was full of whispered rumors of one-on-one meetings and secret acquisitions.  This is the first academic conference I have attended where there was this much talk about getting rich or being bought out, something that is actually happening to a number of researchers that appeal to Facebook’s ambitions. 

As for the content of the Q&A itself?  My distrust of excessive power will show itself here (note: Soviet childhood), but I can think of Mark Zuckerberg only as a tunnel visionary.  He wants Facebook to connect all the people in the world & have a personalized theory of mind for each user.  As far as he sees, this is for the good.  Some of the questions asked by the incisive audience were polite versions of “What are the dangers of having this much data about so many people?” and “What does Facebook as a company do to help society?”  These Zuckerberg dodged so expertly that by the time he was done “answering” (with a hefty & convincing confidence), I had forgotten exactly what the question was.

Facebook could have easily sent some high-ranking folks to give an interesting & technical talk instead of Zuckerberg coming himself.  His presence was jarring because it subverted the spirit of the conference, and injected into it the distinct aroma of big money.  Was it anything more than a glamorous & sanctioned recruiting visit?  I would have expected the NIPS organizers to decline to endorse such industrial overreach.

The barriers between Silicon Valley and academia are blurry and getting blurrier. Maybe this is to be expected in Zuckerberg's "knowledge economy", where the largest data sets and greatest computational resources are destined to be locked behind corporate doors. However, if academia has any hope maintaining an atmosphere of open inquiry (rather than just proprietary R&D), academics have to protect their culture. Otherwise, the resulting decline in high-quality reproducible research will be a loss for everyone involved, and society at large.
In the future, Mark Zuckerberg should be welcome to attend NIPS just like anyone else, assuming he has paid the appropriate registration fee (or obtained a scholarship).  But it is the job of academics (here, the organizers of NIPS) to uphold the necessary boundary between academia and Silicon Valley.  They have failed to do so, and I sincerely hope that this flirtation with Silicon Valley won’t turn into a marriage.
This post was written jointly with Alex Rubinsteyn and a bottle of Scotch.


  1. Thanks for the post, it is good to read that not everyone explicitly and ostentatiously kowtows to a corporate sponsor(s) in allegedly free and open academic conferences.

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  3. Your post is slightly misleading.

    No conference organizer had anything to do with inviting Zuckerberg. He appeared at the Deep Learning Workshop, not in the main program. His appearance at the workshop was at the discretion of the organizers of that workshop. The workshops themselves were selected back in September.

    I didn't attend the Q&A as I was organizing my own workshop on "Probabilistic Models for Big Data". If you'd attended that you would have seen technical talks like you've described from Amazon (Ralf Herbrich), Google (Yoram Singer) and Facebook (Joaquin Quinonero Candela). All three of these industrial speakers are regular attenders of NIPS (going back 8 years at least).

    Although there was a lot of excitement generated by Zuckerberg's attendance, I don't think you can claim that the organizers kowtowed to a corporate sponsor. Zuckerberg registered as any other attendee, and was invited to participate in a Q&A and a discussion in a workshop. Whether any individual conference attendee then chose to go to Deep Learning workshop, or one (like our Probabilistic Models for Big Data) where the technical material you are asking for was discussed, was entirely down to them.

    1. Thanks for the clarification.

      Is it true that the NIPS organizers are the ones that decide which workshops are accepted and which are not? Based on that fact I assumed (incorrectly) that such a high publicity visit would have been coordinated between the NIPS organizers and the workshop organizers since it has a large effect on the conference community as a whole.

      Of course it is true that each attendee could go to any workshop she or he saw fit. But when a high-profile visitor like Zuckerberg is in the building, he has a magnetic pull & is very distracting. That is certainly something to take into account when deciding whether to have such a Q&A.

  4. I am a NIPS Organizer. I'm not speaking on behalf of the NIPS Foundation right now, but I think making the facts clear is important on this issue. The details from "" are correct, plus we only learned about Zuckerberg's attendance a day or two before the conference started.

    Workshops are, by design and history, almost completely de-centralized from the NIPS Conference. 2013 was the first year when we even posted workshop schedules to the website - and this was caused by a big push by the workshop chairs.

    The NIPS Foundation has fairly strict guidelines on what benefits come from corporate sponsorship. Corporations will never be able to buy e.g. an invited talk. .

    Zuckerberg's Q&A session directly effected only 2 workshops out of 35 - the Deep Learning host, and another that allowed their room to be used as overflow. Indirect effects were only because attendees made the choice to see Zuckberberg instead of attending another workshop. It is kind of hard to think poorly of an event that was attended by so many accomplished professors, as you noted. But your point regarding disruption still stands. Perhaps this is a reason to force popular speakers into single-track events - however we do want to avoid the corporate favoritism of hosting Zuckerberg at the main conference - so perhaps we did the best we could.

    The meat of this article is really the shifting line from academic to more industrial involvement. Thanks largely to our brilliant and successful community, including attendees like you, NIPS-related technologies are becoming highly commercially viable. How this changes or doesn't change the conference remains to be seen. Personally, I think it would be a shame if the brilliant work in the NIPS Proceedings never made it into methods or products that benefit greater society. But exactly how the lines are drawn will be up to the NIPS community and the NIPS Board. Thanks for your feedback. Despite our recent growth, the NIPS community is still small enough that organizers and board members can and do take feedback and complaints seriously.

  5. I was conference chair for NIPS 2013 together with Zoubin Ghahramani (but I only speak for myself in what I write below).

    First, I think it's great to have this discussion, because it's clear that the field is rapidly changing. I view corporate involvement of this magnitude as an interesting experiment that we have to work through and reevaluate every year. As with everything there are advantages and disadvantages to corporate involvement. Here are a few I can see:

    -Industry is an integrated part part of our ecosystem from which we hugely benefit. Our students have good jobs (with higher salaries than me). I have never heard of anyone being worried that their students could not find a job. That's a huge blessing.

    -Industry helps us with funding our fundamental research and our conferences. There are many faculty grants that support fundamental research that only needs to be tangentially related to the main mission of the company. Industry also pays for a good chunk of our registration fees, meals, student awards etc.

    -Some companies, in particular Microsoft, operate as an op research lab, allowing their employees to serve the community as reviewers, area chairs, workshop organizers and even program chairs (see last years program chairs at NIPS 2012). Their research papers are just as interesting as papers coming out of academia.

    -Industry labs may accelerate the pace at which our field develops. We may actually need their resources (data and computational infrastructure) to make the next leap in building truly intelligent AI systems. These successes may generate enthusiasm among our new students entering the field, further accelerating progress.

    - Reproducibility. There is a certain danger that more datasets and algorithm details will be locked behind the company's firewall. It's not good if talks have classified elements, or certain questions can not be answered. Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook has developed the best ever face recognition system in just under three months. That's super exciting, but will we have access to it (either to the parameters of the deep net, or to the dataset and algorithm used to train it)? In other words, can we reproduce their results?

    -The Google question (soon the be renamed as the Facebook question). I am often reviewed by a mix of astronomers, mathematicians and computer scientists (The Netherlands is a small country..). I have been confronted more often than I like with what has become known as "the Google question": if this research can be done at Google with many more resources, why should we grant you this money? So here our close connection to industry fires back because it is not considered as "fundamental research" by many who don't understand how we operate.

    -Is it desirable that big companies lure our best students away to improve ad-placement, where they could also have contributed to curing some of the horrible diseases that plague mankind? Perhaps not, but people have the right to make their own decisions.

    And as to Mark Zuckerberg's visit. I found it super exciting! I think it's a small price to pay that certain workshops were temporarily under-attended. But I agree that NIPS should not be turned into a publicity and recruitment event for big companies. We should acknowledge that our field is a complex ecosystem that involves both academia and industry. Our challenge is to find the right balance.

    -Max Welling

    1. Dear Sergey and Alex: this is a very interesting and thoughtful blog post. Thanks, Max, for an excellent reply as well. I completely agree with all your points, Max (lucky us that we tend to agree!). The NIPS and machine learning community are going through a transition period, and intense interest from industry puts some pressures on us as an academic community. As we move forward, we need to ensure that NIPS stays primarily an excellent research conference, while also acknowledging that impact in industry, the sciences and society is a good thing.

      -Zoubin Ghahramani

  6. Hi Max,

    Thanks for the reply. I agree with a lot of what you wrote. I hope our post doesn't come off as academic purism or blanketly against "corporate involvement". I think that Microsoft Research is a wonder, Google & Facebook help everyone conceive of computing at intimidating scales, and ultimately some research ideas have to get implemented for the whole endeavor to have social relevance.

    However, I do feel that research communities need to create firm *cultural* boundaries to prevent their interactions with the corporate world from becoming corrosive.

    Normally, if someone gets on a stage at NIPS, it's because they have a new idea to present or some distilled expertise to share. Additionally, there's an egalitarian feeling created by trying to earnestly share knowledge and being open to critique.

    I think that Zuckerberg (and the various tentacles of his presence) undermined those positive cultural traits. I saw a speaking position unearned in the currency of research expertise and an aberrational assertion of hierarchy above other NIPS attendees.