Distinguished Lecture Series 2023

The Distinguished Lecture series brings computer scientists to Columbia to discuss current issues and research that are affecting their particular research fields. 


Monica LamCognitive Workforce Revolution with Trustworthy and Self-Learning Generative AI

Monica Lam, Stanford University
CS Auditorium (CSB 451)
November 15, 2023
11:40 AM to 12:40 PM

Generative AI, and in particular Large Language Models (LLMs), have already changed how we work and study. To truly transform the cognitive workforce however, LLMs need to be trustworthy so they can operate autonomously without human oversight. Unfortunately, language models are not grounded and have a tendency to hallucinate.

Our research hypothesis is that we can turn LLM into useful workers across different domains if we (1) teach them how to acquire and apply knowledge in external corpora such as written documents, knowledge bases, and APIs; (2) have them self-learn through model distillation of simulated conversations. We showed that by supplying different external corpora to our Genie assistant framework, we can readily create trustworthy agents that can converse about topics in open domains from Wikidata, Wikipedia, or StackExchange; help navigate services and products such as restaurants or online stores; persuade users to donate to charities; and improve the social skills of people with autism spectrum disorder.

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Caroline UhlerCausal Representation Learning and Optimal Intervention Design

Caroline Uhler, MIT
CS Auditorium (CSB 451)
November 8, 2023
11:40 AM to 12:40 PM

Massive data collection holds the promise of a better understanding of complex phenomena and, ultimately, of better decisions. Representation learning has become a key driver of deep learning applications since it allows learning latent spaces that capture important properties of the data without requiring any supervised annotations. While representation learning has been hugely successful in predictive tasks, it can fail miserably in causal tasks, including predicting the effect of an intervention. This calls for a marriage between representation learning and causal inference. An exciting opportunity in this regard stems from the growing availability of interventional data (in medicine, advertisement, education, etc.). However, these datasets are still minuscule compared to the action spaces of interest in these applications (e.g. interventions can take on continuous values like the dose of a drug or can be combinatorial as in combinatorial drug therapies). In this talk, we will present initial ideas towards building a statistical and computational framework for causal representation learning and discuss its applications to optimal intervention design in the context of drug design and single-cell biology.

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SmartBook: an AI Prophetess for Disaster Reporting and Forecasting 

Heng Ji, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
CS Auditorium (CSB 451)
November 1, 2023
11:40 AM to 12:40 PM

We propose SmartBook, a novel framework that cannot be solved by ChatGPT, targeting situation report generation which consumes large volumes of news data to produce a structured situation report with multiple hypotheses (claims) summarized and grounded with rich links to factual evidence by claim detection, fact checking, misinformation detection and factual error correction. Furthermore, SmartBook can also serve as a novel news event simulator, or an intelligent prophetess.  Given “What-if” conditions and dimensions elicited from a domain expert user concerning a disaster scenario, SmartBook will induce schemas from historical events, and automatically generate a complex event graph along with a timeline of news articles that describe new simulated events based on a new Λ-shaped attention mask that can generate text with infinite length. By effectively simulating disaster scenarios in both event graph and natural language format, we expect SmartBook will greatly assist humanitarian workers and policymakers to exercise reality checks (what would the next disaster look like under these given conditions?), and thus better prevent and respond to future disasters.

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Enabling the Era of Immersive Computing

Sarita Adve, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
CS Auditorium (CSB 451)
October 25, 2023
11:40 AM to 12:40 PM

Computing is on the brink of a new immersive era. Recent innovations in virtual/augmented/mixed reality (extended reality or XR) show the potential for a new immersive modality of computing that will transform most human activities and change how we design, program, and use computers.  There is, however, an orders of magnitude gap between the power/performance/quality-of-experience attributes of current and desirable immersive systems. Bridging this gap requires an inter-disciplinary research agenda that spans end-user devices, edge, and cloud, is based on hardware-software-algorithm co-design, and is driven by end-to-end human-perceived quality of experience.

The ILLIXR (Illinois Extended Reality) project has developed an open source end-to-end XR system to enable such a research agenda. ILLIXR is being used in academia and industry to quantify the research challenges for desirable immersive experiences and provide solutions to address these challenges. To further push the interdisciplinary frontier for immersive computing, we recently established the IMMERSE center at Illinois to bring together research, education, and infrastructure activities in immersive technologies, applications, and human experience. This talk will give an overview of IMMERSE and a deeper dive into the ILLIXR project, including the ILLIXR infrastructure, its use to identify XR systems research challenges, and cross-system solutions to address several of these challenges.

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Protecting Human Users from Misused AI

Ben Zhao, University of Chicago
CS Auditorium (CSB 451)
October 9, 2023
11:40 AM to 12:40 PM

Recent developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence have taken nearly everyone by surprise. The arrival of arguably the most transformative wave of AI did not bring us smart cities full of self-driving cars, or robots that do our laundry and mow our lawns. Instead, it brought us over-confident token predictors that hallucinate, deepfake generators that produce realistic images and video, and ubiquitous surveillance. In this talk, I’ll describe some of our recent efforts to warn, and later defend against some of the darker side of AI.

In particular, I will tell the story of how our efforts to disrupt unauthorized facial recognition models led unexpectedly to Glaze, a tool to defend human artists against art mimicry by generative image models. I will share some of the ups and downs of implementing and deploying an adversarial ML tool to a global user base, and reflect on mistakes and lessons learned.

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CEAL Lab Wins Impact Recognition Award at CSCW 2023

The paper “I Want to Figure Things Out”: Supporting Exploration in Navigation for People with Visual Impairments” and three other papers from the Graphics & User Interfaces group will be presented at the 26th ACM Conference On Computer-Supported Cooperative Work And Social Computing (CSCW 2023). 

“I Want to Figure Things Out”: Supporting Exploration in Navigation for People with Visual Impairments”
Gaurav Jain Columbia University, Yuanyang Teng Columbia University, Dong Heon Cho Columbia University, Yunhao Xing Columbia University, Maryam Aziz University of Connecticut, and Brian Smith Columbia University

Navigation assistance systems (NASs) aim to help visually impaired people (VIPs) navigate unfamiliar environments. Most of today’s NASs support VIPs via turn-by-turn navigation, but a growing body of work highlights the importance of exploration as well. It is unclear, however, how NASs should be designed to help VIPs explore unfamiliar environments. In this paper, we perform a qualitative study to understand VIPs’ information needs and challenges with respect to exploring unfamiliar environments to inform the design of NASs that support exploration. Our findings reveal the types of spatial information that VIPs need as well as factors that affect VIPs’ information preferences. We also discover specific challenges that VIPs face that future NASs can address, such as orientation and mobility education and collaborating effectively with others. We present design implications for NASs that support exploration, and we identify specific research opportunities and discuss open socio-technical challenges for making such NASs possible. We conclude by reflecting on our study procedure to inform future approaches in research on ethical considerations that may be adopted while interacting with the broader VIP community.


Social Wormholes: Exploring Preferences and Opportunities for Distributed and Physically-Grounded Social Connections
Joanne Leong MIT Media Lab, Yuanyang Teng Columbia University, Xingyu Liu University of California Los Angeles, Hanseul Jun Stanford University, Sven Kratz Snap, Inc., Yu Jiang Tham Snap, Inc., Andrés Monroy-Hernández Snap, Inc. and Princeton University, Brian Smith Snap, Inc. and Columbia University, and Rajan Vaish Snap, Inc.

Ubiquitous computing encapsulates the idea for technology to be interwoven into the fabric of everyday life. As computing blends into everyday physical artifacts, powerful opportunities open up for social connection. Prior connected media objects span a broad spectrum of design combinations. Such diversity suggests that people have varying needs and preferences for staying connected to one another. However, since these designs have largely been studied in isolation, we do not have a holistic understanding around how people would configure and behave within a ubiquitous social ecosystem of physically-grounded artifacts. In this paper, we create a technology probe called Social Wormholes, that lets people configure their own home ecosystem of connected artifacts. Through a field study with 24 participants, we report on patterns of behaviors that emerged naturally in the context of their daily lives and shine a light on how ubiquitous computing could be leveraged for social computing.


Exploring Immersive Interpersonal Communication via AR
Kyungjun Lee University of Maryland, College Park, Hong Li Snap, Inc.,
Muhammad Rizky Wellytanto University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Yu Jiang Tham Snap, Inc., Andrés Monroy-Hernández Snap, Inc. and Princeton University, Fannie Liu Snap, Inc. and JPMorgan Chase, Brian A. Smith Snap, Inc. and Columbia University, Rajan Vaish Snap, Inc.

A central challenge of social computing research is to enable people to communicate expressively with each other remotely. Augmented reality has great promise for expressive communication since it enables communication beyond texts and photos and towards immersive experiences rendered in recipients’ physical environments. Little research, however, has explored AR’s potential for everyday interpersonal communication. In this work, we prototype an AR messaging system, ARwand, to understand people’s behaviors and perceptions around communicating with friends via AR messaging. We present our findings under four themes observed from a user study with 24 participants, including the types of immersive messages people choose to send to each other, which factors contribute to a sense of immersiveness, and what concerns arise over this new form of messaging. We discuss important implications of our findings on the design of future immersive communication systems.


Perspectives from Naive Participants and Social Scientists on Addressing Embodiment in a Virtual Cyberball Task
Tao Long Cornell University and Columbia University, Swati Pandita Cornell University and California Institute of Technology, Andrea Stevenson Won Cornell University

We describe the design of an immersive virtual Cyberball task that included avatar customization, and user feedback on this design. We first created a prototype of an avatar customization template and added it to a Cyberball prototype built in the Unity3D game engine. Then, we conducted in-depth user testing and feedback sessions with 15 Cyberball stakeholders: five naive participants with no prior knowledge of Cyberball and ten experienced researchers with extensive experience using the Cyberball paradigm. We report the divergent perspectives of the two groups on the following design insights; designing for intuitive use, inclusivity, and realistic experiences versus minimalism. Participant responses shed light on how system design problems may contribute to or perpetuate negative experiences when customizing avatars. They also demonstrate the value of considering multiple stakeholders’ feedback in the design process for virtual reality, presenting a more comprehensive view in designing future Cyberball prototypes and interactive systems for social science research.


Five Papers From The Computer Vision Group Accepted To ICCV 2023

Research papers from the Computer Vision Group were accepted to the International Conference on Computer Vision (ICCV ’23), the premiere international conference that includes computer vision workshops and tutorials.


ViperGPT: Visual Inference via Python Execution for Reasoning
Dídac Surís Columbia University, Sachit Menon Columbia University, Carl Vondrick Columbia University

Answering visual queries is a complex task that requires both visual processing and reasoning. End-to-end models, the dominant approach for this task, do not explicitly differentiate between the two, limiting interpretability and generalization. Learning modular programs presents a promising alternative, but has proven challenging due to the difficulty of learning both the programs and modules simultaneously. We introduce ViperGPT, a framework that leverages code-generation models to compose vision-and-language models into subroutines to produce a result for any query. ViperGPT utilizes a provided API to access the available modules, and composes them by generating Python code that is later executed. This simple approach requires no further training, and achieves state-of-the-art results across various complex visual tasks.


Zero-1-to-3: Zero-shot One Image to 3D Object
Ruoshi Liu Columbia University, Rundi Wu Columbia University, Basile Van Hoorick Columbia University, Pavel Tokmakov Toyota Research Institute, Sergey Zakharov Toyota Research Institute, Carl Vondrick Columbia University

We introduce Zero-1-to-3, a framework for changing the camera viewpoint of an object given just a single RGB image. To perform novel view synthesis in this under-constrained setting, we capitalize on the geometric priors that large-scale diffusion models learn about natural images. Our conditional diffusion model uses a synthetic dataset to learn controls of the relative camera viewpoint, which allow new images to be generated of the same object under a specified camera transformation. Even though it is trained on a synthetic dataset, our model retains a strong zero-shot generalization ability to out-of-distribution datasets as well as in-the-wild images, including impressionist paintings. Our viewpoint-conditioned diffusion approach can further be used for the task of 3D reconstruction from a single image. Qualitative and quantitative experiments show that our method significantly outperforms state-of-the-art single-view 3D reconstruction and novel view synthesis models by leveraging Internet-scale pre-training.


Muscles in Action
Mia Chiquier Columbia University, Carl Vondrick Columbia University

Human motion is created by, and constrained by, our muscles. We take a first step at building computer vision methods that represent the internal muscle activity that causes motion. We present a new dataset, Muscles in Action (MIA), to learn to incorporate muscle activity into human motion representations. The dataset consists of 12.5 hours of synchronized video and surface electromyography (sEMG) data of 10 subjects performing various exercises. Using this dataset, we learn a bidirectional representation that predicts muscle activation from video, and conversely, reconstructs motion from muscle activation. We evaluate our model on in-distribution subjects and exercises, as well as on out-of-distribution subjects and exercises. We demonstrate how advances in modeling both modalities jointly can serve as conditioning for muscularly consistent motion generation. Putting muscles into computer vision systems will enable richer models of virtual humans, with applications in sports, fitness, and AR/VR.


SurfsUp: Learning Fluid Simulation for Novel Surfaces
Arjun Mani Columbia University, Ishaan Preetam Chandratreya Columbia University, Elliot Creager University of Toronto, Carl Vondrick Columbia University, Richard Zemel Columbia University

Modeling the mechanics of fluid in complex scenes is vital to applications in design, graphics, and robotics. Learning-based methods provide fast and differentiable fluid simulators, however most prior work is unable to accurately model how fluids interact with genuinely novel surfaces not seen during training. We introduce SURFSUP, a framework that represents objects implicitly using signed distance functions (SDFs), rather than an explicit representation of meshes or particles. This continuous representation of geometry enables more accurate simulation of fluid-object interactions over long time periods while simultaneously making computation more efficient. Moreover, SURFSUP trained on simple shape primitives generalizes considerably out-of-distribution, even to complex real-world scenes and objects. Finally, we show we can invert our model to design simple objects to manipulate fluid flow.


Landscape Learning for Neural Network Inversion
Ruoshi Liu Columbia University, Chengzhi Mao Columbia University, Purva Tendulkar Columbia University, Hao Wang Rutgers University, Carl Vondrick Columbia University

Many machine learning methods operate by inverting a neural network at inference time, which has become a popular technique for solving inverse problems in computer vision, robotics, and graphics. However, these methods often involve gradient descent through a highly non-convex loss landscape, causing the optimization process to be unstable and slow. We introduce a method that learns a loss landscape where gradient descent is efficient, bringing massive improvement and acceleration to the inversion process. We demonstrate this advantage on a number of methods for both generative and discriminative tasks, including GAN inversion, adversarial defense, and 3D human pose reconstruction.


Papers from the Wu Lab Accepted to VLDB 2023

Four papers from the Wu Lab were presented at the 49th International Conference on Very Large Data Bases (VLDB 2023). VLDB features research talks, tutorials, demonstrations, and workshops on issues in data management, database, and information systems research.


JoinBoost: Grow Trees Over Normalized Data Using Only SQL
Zezhou Huang, Rathijit Sen, Jiaxiang Liu, Eugene Wu

Although dominant for tabular data, ML libraries that train tree models over normalized databases (e.g., LightGBM, XGBoost) require the data to be denormalized as a single table, materialized, and exported. This process is not scalable, slow, and poses security risks. In-DB ML aims to train models within DBMSes to avoid data movement and provide data governance. Rather than modify a DBMS to support In-DB ML, is it possible to offer competitive tree training performance to specialized ML libraries…with only SQL?

We present JoinBoost, a Python library that rewrites tree training algorithms over normalized databases into pure SQL. It is portable to any DBMS, offers performance competitive with specialized ML libraries, and scales with the underlying DBMS capabilities. JoinBoost extends prior work from both algorithmic and systems perspectives. Algorithmically, we support factorized gradient boosting, by updating theYvariable to the residual in the non-materialized join result. Although this view update problem is generally ambiguous, we identify addition-to-multiplication preserving, the key property of variance semi-ring to support rmse, the most widely used criterion. System-wise, we identify residual updates as a performance bottleneck. Such overhead can be natively minimized on columnar DBMSes by creating a new column of residual values and adding it as a projection. We validate this with two implementations on DuckDB, with no or minimal modifications to its internals for portability. Our experiment shows that JoinBoost is 3x (1.1x) faster for random forests (gradient boosting) compared to LightGBM, and over an order magnitude faster than state-of-the-art In-DB ML systems. Further, JoinBoost scales well beyond LightGBM in terms of the # features, DB size (TPC-DS SF=1000), and join graph complexity (galaxy schemas).


Saibot: A Differentially Private Data Search Platform
Zezhou Huang, Jiaxiang Liu, Daniel Alabi, Raul Castro Fernandez, Eugene Wu

Recent data search platforms use ML task-based utility measures rather than metadata-based keywords, to search large dataset corpora. Requesters submit a training dataset and these platforms search for augmentations (join or union compatible datasets) that, when used to augment the requester’s dataset, most improve model (e.g., linear regression) performance. Although effective, providers that manage personally identifiable data demand differential privacy (DP) guarantees before granting these platforms data access. Unfortunately, making data search differentially private is nontrivial, as a single search can involve training and evaluating datasets hundreds or thousands of times, quickly depleting privacy budgets.

We present Saibot, a differentially private data search platform that employs Factorized Privacy Mechanism (FPM), a novel DP mechanism, to calculate sufficient semi-ring statistics for ML over different combinations of datasets. These statistics are privatized once, and can be freely reused for the search. This allows Saibot to scale to arbitrary numbers of datasets and requests, while minimizing the amount that DP noise affects search results. We optimize the sensitivity of FPM for common augmentation operations, and analyze its properties with respect to linear regression. Specifically, we develop an unbiased estimator for many-to-many joins, prove its bounds, and develop an optimization to redistribute DP noise to minimize the impact on the model. Our evaluation on a real-world dataset corpus of 329 datasets demonstrates that Saibot can return augmentations that achieve model accuracy within 50 to 90% of non-private search, while the leading alternative DP mechanisms (TPM, APM, shuffling) are several orders of magnitude worse.


Pollock: A Data Loading Benchmark
Gerardo Vitagliano, Mazhar Hameed, Lan Jiang, Lucas Reisener, Eugene Wu, Felix Naumann

Any system at play in a data-driven project has a fundamental requirement: the ability to load data. The de-facto standard format to distribute and consume raw data is csv. Yet, the plain text and flexible nature of this format make such files often difficult to parse and correctly load their content, requiring cumbersome data preparation steps.

We propose a benchmark to assess the robustness of systems in loading data from non-standard csv formats and with structural inconsistencies. First, we formalize a model to describe the issues that affect real-world files and use it to derive a systematic “pollution” process to generate dialects for any given grammar. Our benchmark leverages the pollution framework for the csv format. To guide pollution, we have surveyed thousands of real-world, publicly available csv files, recording the problems we encountered. We demonstrate the applicability of our benchmark by testing and scoring 16 different systems: popular csv parsing frameworks, relational database tools, spreadsheet systems, and a data visualization tool.


ConnectorX: Accelerating Data Loading From Databases to Dataframes
Xiaoying Wang, Weiyuan Wu, Jinze Wu, Yizhou Chen, Nick Zrymiak, Changbo Qu, Lampros Flokas, George Chow, Jiannan Wang, Tianzheng Wang, Eugene Wu, Qingqing Zhou

Data is often stored in a database management system (DBMS) but dataframe libraries are widely used among data scientists. An important but challenging problem is how to bridge the gap between databases and dataframes. To solve this problem, we present ConnectorX, a client library that enables fast and memory-efficient data loading from various databases to different dataframes.

We first investigate why the loading process is slow and consumes large memory. We surprisingly find that the main overhead comes from the client-side rather than query execution or data transfer. We integrate several existing and new techniques to reduce the overhead and carefully design the system architecture and interface to make ConnectorX easy to extend to various databases and dataframes. Moreover, we propose server-side result partitioning that can be adopted by DBMSs in order to better support exporting data to data science tools. We conduct extensive experiments to evaluate ConnectorX and compare it with popular libraries. The results show that ConnectorX significantly outperforms existing solutions. ConnectorX is open sourced at: https://github.com/sfu-db/connector-x.


Congratulations to the Class of 2023!


2023 graduation handout with list of student awardsThe department is extremely proud of all of our students! We honored this year’s graduates at a post-commencement event on May 17.

A number of students received awards from the department for their service and academic excellence. The list of CS awardees is in this year’s graduation handout

University commencement was on May 17 and on May 15, the Columbia Engineering Class of 2023 gathered on the South Lawn of Columbia’s campus to celebrate Class Day


  • Madison Fong and Luca Carloni
    Jonathan L. Gross Award for Academic Excellence Awardee Madison Fong