May 2, 2006

Artificial intelligence grad students meet at Cornell to network, discuss and practice

"These are our future colleagues," said Cornell graduate student Filip Radlinski, waving his hand at some 100 other graduate students assembled in Upson B-17 for a talk by Tom Mitchell, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University.

The lecture was part of the first annual Northeast Student Colloquium on Artificial Intelligence (NESCAI), held on the Cornell campus April 28-29. Graduate students came from 18 regional schools, some as far away as Pittsburgh, Montreal, Philadelphia and Boston.

Mitchell's talk and an earlier one by Jon Kleinberg, Cornell professor of computer science, were the only intrusions of faculty into the student-organized event. The conference focused on 20 papers on artificial intelligence, commonly referred to as AI, submitted and peer reviewed by graduate students, and two crowded poster sessions where students who hadn't presented papers displayed their research amid spirited discussion.

The AI field, which was popular in the early days of computing but fell into disrepute, has seen a resurgence in recent years, largely due to the availability of vastly greater computing power. The emphasis has shifted from trying to build intelligent computers to making computers do intelligent things, such as recognizing faces, learning the preferences of Web searchers or finding patterns in Internet networks, and on using computer science to shed light on cognitive psychology. Cornell has become a major center for such research.

Why a conference just for graduate students? Most conferences are filled with senior and often eminent academics, Radlinski explained. "It's kind of intimidating," he said. It is much more difficult, he added, to have a paper accepted for presentation at a major conference. By comparison, the student conference is a place, as its Web site suggests, where "you can practice presenting your stuff." NESCAI does not publish proceedings, and students participants can submit their research elsewhere.

Radlinski and Alex Niculescu-Mizil are co-chairs of the conference's organizing committee, which also included two students each from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Toronto.

The conference, funded by the Intelligent Information Systems Institute and the Department of Computer Science, both at Cornell, paid for food and hotel rooms for participants, but the students had to provide their own transportation. One reason it was limited to the northeast, organizers said, was to place it within driving distance for everyone.