5 Research Papers Accepted to ICML 2022

Papers from CS researchers have been accepted to the 38th International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML 2021)

Below are the abstracts and links to the accepted papers.


Simple And Near-Optimal Algorithms For Hidden Stratification And Multi-Group Learning
Christopher Tosh Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Daniel Hsu Columbia University

Multi-group agnostic learning is a formal learning criterion that is concerned with the conditional risks of predictors within subgroups of a population. The criterion addresses recent practical concerns such as subgroup fairness and hidden stratification. This paper studies the structure of solutions to the multi-group learning problem and provides simple and near-optimal algorithms for the learning problem.


On Measuring Causal Contributions Aia Do-Interventions
Yonghan Jung Purdue University, Shiva Kasiviswanathan Amazon, Jin Tian Iowa State University, Dominik Janzing Amazon, Patrick Bloebaum Amazon, Elias Bareinboim Columbia University

Causal contributions measure the strengths of different causes to a target quantity. Understanding causal contributions is important in empirical sciences and data-driven disciplines since it allows to answer practical queries like “what are the contributions of each cause to the effect?” In this paper, we develop a principled method for quantifying causal contributions. First, we provide desiderata of properties (axioms) that causal contribution measures should satisfy and propose the do-Shapley values (inspired by do-interventions (Pearl, 2000)) as a unique method satisfying these properties. Next, we develop a criterion under which the do-Shapley values can be efficiently inferred from non-experimental data. Finally, we provide do-Shapley estimators exhibiting consistency, computational feasibility, and statistical robustness. Simulation results corroborate with the theory.


Partial Counterfactual Identification From Observational And Experimental Data
Junzhe Zhang Columbia University, Jin TianIowa Iowa State University, Elias Bareinboim Columbia University

This paper investigates the problem of bounding counterfactual queries from an arbitrary collection of observational and experimental distributions and qualitative knowledge about the underlying data-generating model represented in the form of a causal diagram. We show that all counterfactual distributions in an arbitrary structural causal model (SCM) with discrete observed domains could be generated by a canonical family of SCMs with the same causal diagram where unobserved (exogenous) variables are also discrete, taking values in finite domains. Utilizing the canonical SCMs, we translate the problem of bounding counterfactuals into that of polynomial programming whose solution provides optimal bounds for the counterfactual query. Solving such polynomial programs is in general computationally expensive. We then develop effective Monte Carlo algorithms to approximate optimal bounds from a combination of observational and experimental data. Our algorithms are validated extensively on synthetic and real-world datasets.


Counterfactual Transportability: A Formal Approach
Juan D. Correa Universidad Autonoma de Manizales, Sanghack Lee Seoul National University, Elias Bareinboim Columbia University

Generalizing causal knowledge across environments is a common challenge shared across many of the data-driven disciplines, including AI and ML. Experiments are usually performed in one environment (e.g., in a lab, on Earth, in a training ground), almost invariably, with the intent of being used elsewhere (e.g., outside the lab, on Mars, in the real world), in an environment that is related but somewhat different than the original one, where certain conditions and mechanisms are likely to change. This generalization task has been studied in the causal inference literature under the rubric of transportability (Pearl and Bareinboim, 2011). While most transportability works focused on generalizing associational and interventional distributions, the generalization of counterfactual distributions has not been formally studied. In this paper, we investigate the transportability of counterfactuals from an arbitrary combination of observational and experimental distributions coming from disparate domains. Specifically, we introduce a sufficient and necessary graphical condition and develop an efficient, sound, and complete algorithm for transporting counterfactual quantities across domains in nonparametric settings. Failure of the algorithm implies the impossibility of generalizing the target counterfactual from the available data without further assumptions.


Variational Inference for Infinitely Deep Neural Networks
Achille Nazaret Columbia University, David Blei Columbia University

We introduce the unbounded depth neural network (UDN), an infinitely deep probabilistic model that adapts its complexity to the training data. The UDN contains an infinite sequence of hidden layers and places an unbounded prior on a truncation ℓ, the layer from which it produces its data. Given a dataset of observations, the posterior UDN provides a conditional distribution of both the parameters of the infinite neural network and its truncation. We develop a novel variational inference algorithm to approximate this posterior, optimizing a distribution of the neural network weights and of the truncation depth ℓ, and without any upper limit on ℓ. To this end, the variational family has a special structure: it models neural network weights of arbitrary depth, and it dynamically creates or removes free variational parameters as its distribution of the truncation is optimized. (Unlike heuristic approaches to model search, it is solely through gradient-based optimization that this algorithm explores the space of truncations.) We study the UDN on real and synthetic data. We find that the UDN adapts its posterior depth to the dataset complexity; it outperforms standard neural networks of similar computational complexity; and it outperforms other approaches to infinite-depth neural networks.


Voices of CS: Didac Suris

PhD student Didac Suris talks about his research and winning a prestigious Microsoft Research Fellowship.


“So, this is a rough idea for modeling trajectories and I need your feedback,” said Didac Suris to the room while his teammates looked at him over bowls of Chinese food. “I literally just thought of this two days ago.”

It is the first week that working lunch meetings can resume at Columbia. Suris, along with other members of the computer vision lab, immediately took advantage of it. As they settle down into the meeting, Suris talks about his research proposal, and his audience exchange ideas with him in between bites of food. The last time this happened was two years ago.

“We came back in the Fall and it is good to be back in the office,” said Didac Suris, a third-year PhD student advised by Carl Vondrick. “Collaborating with teammates and just being out has worked wonders for my productivity which has skyrocketed compared to when working alone, or from home.”

Suris (center) with the computer vision lab members

Suris can be found in an office in CEPSR working on research projects that study computer vision and machine learning. The projects focus on training machines to interact and observe their surroundings, including his work on predicting what will happen next in a video. This is in line with his long-term goal of creating systems that can model video more appropriately and help predict the future actions of a video, which will be useful in autonomous vehicles, human-robot interaction, broadcasting of sports events, and assistive technology.

Suris was recently named a Microsoft Research Fellow. The research he has done while at Columbia focuses on computer vision and building systems that can learn on their own which is very different from what he studied in undergrad, telecommunications at the Polytechnic University of Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain. We caught up with Suris to ask about how his PhD is going and winning the fellowship.

Q: What was your journey to Columbia? How did you pivot from telecommunications to applying for a PhD in computer vision?
It was only during my masters, when I started doing research on computer vision, that I started to consider doing a PhD. The main reason I’m doing a PhD is because I believe it is the best way to push myself intellectually.

I really recommend doing research in different places before starting a PhD. Before starting at Columbia, I did research in three different universities, which prepared me for my current research. These experiences helped me to 1) understand what research is about, and 2) understand that different research groups work differently, and get the best out of each one.

Q: What drew you to machine learning and artificial intelligence?
One of the characteristic aspects of this field is how fast it is evolving, and how impressive the research results have been in the last decade. I don’t think there was a specific moment where I decided to do research on this topic, I would say there was a series of circumstances that led me here, including the fact that I was originally interested in artificial intelligence in the first place, of course.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on computer vision?
There is a lot of information online because of the vast amount of videos, images, text, audio, and other forms of data. But the thing is the majority of this information is not labeled clearly. For example, we do not have information about the actions taking place in every YouTube video. But we can still use the information in the YouTube video to learn about the world.

Another option is to try using Convertio. Although it’s cost-free, it is possible to only upload records as much as 100MB, unless of course you’re reduced fellow member. If you’re a recurrent zamzar4 user of Convertio, ZamZar is a good option for you. With more than 1,200 submit formats supported, it’s an easy task to turn your files to another one formatting. The program also supports the conversion of GIF to JPG, enabling you to download the changed document immediately or send out these to others via email.

We can teach a computer to relate the audio in a video to the visual content in a video. And then we can relate all of this to the comments on the YouTube video to learn associations between all of these different signals, and help the computer understand the world based on these associations. I want to be able to use any and all information out there to develop systems that will train computers to learn with minimal human supervision.

Q: What sort of research questions or issues do you hope to answer?
There is a lot of data about the world on the Internet – billions of videos are recorded every day across the world. My main research question is how can we make sense of all of this raw video content.

Q: What was the thesis proposal that you submitted for the Microsoft PhD?
The proposal was called “Video Hyperboles.” The idea is to model long videos (most of the literature nowadays is on very short clips, not long-format videos) by modeling their temporal hierarchy. For example, the action of “cutting an onion” is composed of the subactions “grabbing a knife”, “pressing the knife”, “gathering the pieces.” This forms a temporal hierarchy, in which the action “cutting an onion” is higher in the hierarchy, and the subactions are lower in the hierarchy. Hierarchies can be modeled in a geometric space called Hyperbolic Space, and thus the name “Video Hyperboles.”

I have not been working on the project directly, but I am building up pieces to eventually be able to achieve something like what I described in the proposal. I work on related topics, with the general direction of creating a video representation (for example, a hierarchy) that allows us to model video more appropriately, and helps us predict the future of a video. And I will work on this for the rest of my PhD.

Q: What is your advice to students on how to navigate their time at Columbia? If they want to do research what should they know or do to prepare?
Research requires a combination of abilities that may take time to develop: patience, asking the right questions, etc. So experience is very important. My main advice would be to try to do research as soon as possible. Experience is very necessary to do research but is also important in order to decide whether or not research is for you. It is not for everyone, and the sooner you figure that out, the better.

Q: Is there anything else that you think people should know about getting a PhD?
Most of the time, a PhD is sold as a lot of pain and suffering, as working all day every day, and being very concerned about what your advisor will think of you. At least this is how it is in our field. It is sometimes seen as a competition to be a great and prolific researcher, too. And I don’t see it like that – you can enjoy (or hate) your PhD the same way you enjoy any other career path. It is all about finding the correct topics to work on, and the correct balance between research and personal life.

The Distinguished Lecture Series Explores the Different Ways Machine Learning is Used in Research

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

This year, four experts covered topics on how machine learning is used in drug discovery, software testing, RNA splicing, and surrogate loss functions:

  • Regina Barzilay, MIT
    Modeling Chemistry for Drug Discovery: Current State and Unsolved Challenges
  • Koushik Sen, UC Berkeley
    Automated Test Generation: A Journey from Symbolic Execution to Smart Fuzzing and Beyond
  • Oded Regev, Courant Institute, New York University
    Using Machine Learning for Scientific Discovery in Biology
  • Shivani Agarwal, University of Pennsylvania
    Surrogate Loss Functions in Machine Learning: What are the Fundamental Design Principles?


Below are a couple of the lectures from prominent faculty from universities across the country.

Automated Test Generation: A Journey from Symbolic Execution to Smart Fuzzing and Beyond
Koushik Sen, UC Berkeley

Surrogate Loss Functions in Machine Learning: What are the Fundamental Design Principles?
Shivani Agarwal, University of Pennsylvania



Voices of CS: Giannis Karamanolakis

Giannis Karamanolakis, a natural language processing and machine learning PhD student, talks about his research projects and how he is developing machine learning techniques for natural language processing applications.

Sitia, Greece

Can you talk about your background and why you decided to pursue a PhD?

I used to live in Greece and grew up in Sitia, a small town in Crete. In 2011, I left my hometown to study electrical and computer engineering at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA).

At NTUA, taking part in machine learning (ML) research was not planned but rather a spontaneous outcome stemming from my love for music. The initial goal for my undergraduate thesis was to build an automatic music transcription system that converts polyphonic raw audio into music sheets. However, after realizing that such a system would not be possible to develop in a limited amount of time, I worked on the simpler task of automatically tagging audio clips with descriptive tags (e.g., “car horn” for audio clips where a car horn is sound). Right after submitting a new algorithm as a conference paper, I realized that I love doing ML research.

After NTUA, I spent one and a half years working as an ML engineer at a startup called Behavioral Signals, where we trained statistical models for the recognition of core emotions from speech and text data. After a few months of ML engineering, I found myself spending more time reading research papers and evaluating new research ideas on ML and natural language processing (NLP). By then, I was confident about my decision to pursue a PhD in ML/NLP.

What about NLP did you like and when did you realize that you wanted to do research on it?

I am fascinated by the ability of humans to understand complex natural language. At the moment of writing this response, I submitted the following 10-word query to Google: “when did you realize that you wanted to do research” by keeping quotation marks so that Google looks for exact matches only. Can you guess the number of the documents returned by Google that contain this exact sequence of 10 words?

The answer that I got was 0 (zero) documents, no results! In other words, Google, a company with huge collections of documents, did not detect any document that contains this specific sequence of words. Sentences rarely recur but humans easily understand the semantics of such rare sentences.

I decided to do research on NLP when I realized that current NLP algorithms are far away from human-level language understanding. As an example back from my time at Behavioral Signals, emotion classifiers were misclassifying sentences that contained sarcasm, negation, and other complex linguistic phenomena. I could not directly fix those issues (which are prevalent beyond emotion classification), which initially felt both surprising and frustrating, but then evolved into my excitement for research on NLP.


Why did you apply to Columbia and how was that process? 

The computer science department at Columbia was one of my top choices for several reasons, but I will discuss the first one. 

I was excited to learn about the joint collaboration between Columbia University and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), on a project that aims to understand user-generated textual content in social media (e.g., Yelp reviews, tweets) for critical public health applications, such as detecting and acting on foodborne illness outbreaks in restaurants. I could see that the project would offer the unique opportunity to do research in ML and NLP and at the same time contribute to this important public application in collaboration with epidemiologists at DOHMH. Fortunately, I have been able to work on the project, advised by Professor Luis Gravano and Associate Professor Daniel Hsu.

Applying to Columbia and other American universities was quite a stressful experience. For many months, my days were filled with working for Behavioral Signals, studying hard for high scores in GRE and TOEFL exams (both of which were required at that time by all US universities), creating a short CV for the first time, and writing a distinct statement-of-purpose for each university. I am glad to observe the recent promising changes in the PhD application procedure for our department, such as waiving the GRE requirements and offering the Pre-submission Application Review (PAR) program, in which current PhD students help applicants improve their applications. (Both of which I would have liked to have been able to take advantage of.)


What sort of research questions or issues do you hope to answer?

My research in the past few years focuses on the following question: Can we effectively train ML classifiers for NLP applications with limited training data using alternative forms of human supervision?

An important limitation of current “supervised ML” techniques is that they require large amounts of training data, which is expensive and time-consuming to obtain manually. Thus, while supervised ML techniques (especially deep neural networks) thrive in standard benchmarks, it would be too expensive to apply to emerging real-world applications with limited labeled data.

Our work attempts to address the expensive requirement of manually labeled data through novel frameworks that leverage alternative, less expensive forms of human supervision. In sentiment classification, for example, we allow domain experts to provide a small set of domain-specific rules (e.g., “happy” keyword indicates positive sentiment, “diarrhea” is a symptom of food poisoning). Under low-resource settings with no labeled data, can we leverage expert-defined rules as supervision for training state-of-the-art neural networks? 


For your research papers, how did you decide to do research on those topics? How long did it take you to complete the work? Was it easy? 

For my first research project at Columbia, my goal was to help epidemiologists in health departments with daily inspections of restaurant reviews that discuss food poisoning events. Restaurant reviews can be quite long, with many irrelevant sentences surrounding the truly important ones that discuss food poisoning or relevant symptoms. Thus, we developed a neural network that highlights only important sentences in potentially long reviews and deployed it for inspections in health departments, where epidemiologists could quickly focus on the relevant sentences and safely ignore the rest.

The goal behind my next research projects was to develop frameworks for addressing a broader range of text-mining tasks, such as sentiment analysis and news document classification, and for supporting multiple languages without expensive labeled data for each language. To address this goal, we initially proposed a framework for leveraging just a few domain-specific keywords as supervision for aspect detection and later extended our framework for training classifiers across 18 languages using minimal resources.

Each project took about 6 months to complete. None of them were easy; each required substantial effort in reading relevant papers, discussing potential solutions with my advisors, implementing executable code, evaluating hypotheses on real data, and repeating the same process until we were all satisfied with the solutions and evaluation results. The projects also involved meeting with epidemiologists at DOHMH, re-designing our system to satisfy several (strict) data transfer protocols imposed by health departments, and overcoming several issues related to missing data for training ML classifiers.  


Your advisors are not part of the NLP group, how has that worked out for you and your projects?

It has worked great in my humble opinion. For the public health project, the expertise of Professor Gravano on information extraction, combined with the expertise of Professor Hsu on machine learning, and the technical needs of the project have contributed without any doubt to the current formulation of our NLP-related frameworks. My advisors’ feedback covers a broad spectrum of research, ranging from core technical challenges to more general research practices, such as problem formulation and paper writing. 

Among others, I appreciate the freedom I have been given for exploring new interesting research questions as well as the frequent and insightful feedback that helps me to reframe questions and forming solutions. At the same time, discussions with members of the NLP group, including professors and students, have been invaluable and have clearly influenced our projects.


What do you think is the most interesting thing about doing research?

I think it is the high amount of surprise it encompasses. For many research problems that I have tried to tackle, I started by shaping an initial solution in my mind but in the process discovered surprising findings that undoubtedly changed my way of thinking – such as that my initial solution did not actually work, simpler approaches worked better than more sophisticated approaches, data followed unexpected patterns, etc. These instances of surprise turned research into an interesting experience, similar to solving riddles or listening to jazz music. 


Please talk about your internships – the work you did, how was it, what did you learn?

In the summer of 2019, I worked at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle with a team of more than 15 scientists and engineers. Our goal was to automatically extract and store knowledge about billions of products in a product knowledge graph. As part of my internship, we developed TXtract, a deep neural network that efficiently extracts information from product descriptions for thousands of product categories. TXtract has been a core component of Amazon’s AutoKnow, which provides the collected knowledge for Amazon search and product detail pages.

During the summer of 2020, I worked for Microsoft Research remotely from New York City (because of the pandemic). In collaboration with researchers at the Language and Information Technologies team, we developed a weak supervision framework that enables domain experts to express their knowledge in the form of rules and further integrates rules for training deep neural networks.

These two internships equipped me with invaluable experiences. I learned new coding tools, ML techniques, and research practices. Through the collaboration with different teams, I realized that even researchers who work on the same subfield may think in incredibly different ways, so to carry out a successful collaboration within a limited time, one needs to listen carefully, pre-define expected outcomes (with everyone in the team), and adapt fast.


Do you think your skills were improved by your time at Columbia? In which ways?

Besides having improved my problem-finding and -solving skills, I have expanded my presentation capabilities. In the beginning, I was frustrated when other people (even experienced researchers) could not follow my presentations and I was worried when I could not follow other presenters’ work. Later, I realized that if (at least part of) the audience is not able to follow a presentation, then the presentation is either flawed or has been designed for the wrong audience. 

Over the past four years, I have presented my work at various academic conferences and workshops, symposiums at companies, and student seminars, and after having received constructive feedback from other researchers, I can say that my presentation skills have vastly improved. Without any doubt, I feel more confident and can explain my work to a broader type of audience with diverse expertise. That said, I’m still struggling to explain my PhD topic to my family. 🙂

What has been the highlight of your time at Columbia? 

The first thing that comes to mind is the “Greek Happy Hour” that I co-organized in October 2019. More than 40 PhD students joined the happy hour, listened to Greek music (mostly “rempetika”), tasted greek specialties (including spanakopita), and all toasted loudly by saying “Γειά μας” (ya mas; the greek version of “cheers”).


Was there anything that was tough to handle while taking your PhD?

PhD Happy Hour in 2020

It is hard to work from home during a pandemic. A core part of my PhD used to involve multi-person collaborations, drawing illustrations on the whiteboards of the Data Science Institute, random chats in hallways, happy hours, and other social events. All these have been harder or impossible to retain during the pandemic. I miss it and look forward to enjoying it again soon.

Looking back, what would you have done differently?

If I could, I would have engaged in more discussions and collaborations, taken more classes, played more music, and slept less. 🙂


What is your advice to students on how to navigate their time at Columbia? If they want to do NLP research what should they know or do to prepare?

They should register for diverse courses; Columbia offers the opportunity to attend courses from multiple departments. They should reach out to as many people as possible and do not hesitate to email graduate students and professors. I love receiving emails from people that I haven’t met before, some of which stimulated creative collaborations. 

For those that want to do NLP research (which I highly recommend–subjectively speaking), you should contact me or any person in the NLP group.


What are your plans after Columbia?

I plan to continue working on research, either as a faculty member or in an industry research and development department.


Is there anything else that you think people should know?

Columbia offers free and discounted tickets to museums and performances around New York City, even virtual art events. I personally consider New York as the “state-of-the-art”.

13 Research Papers Accepted to ICML 2021

Papers from CS researchers have been accepted to the 38th International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML 2021). 

Associate Professor Daniel Hsu was one of the publication chairs of the conference and Assistant Professor Elham Azizi helped organize the 2021 ICML Workshop on Computational Biology. The workshop highlighted how machine learning approaches can be tailored to making both translational and basic scientific discoveries with biological data.

Below are the abstracts and links to the accepted papers.

A Proxy Variable View of Shared Confounding
Yixin Wang Columbia University, David Blei Columbia University

Causal inference from observational data can be biased by unobserved confounders. Confounders—the variables that affect both the treatments and the outcome—induce spurious non-causal correlations between the two. Without additional conditions, unobserved confounders generally make causal quantities hard to identify. In this paper, we focus on the setting where there are many treatments with shared confounding, and we study under what conditions is causal identification possible. The key observation is that we can view subsets of treatments as proxies of the unobserved confounder and identify the intervention distributions of the rest. Moreover, while existing identification formulas for proxy variables involve solving integral equations, we show that one can circumvent the need for such solutions by directly modeling the data. Finally, we extend these results to an expanded class of causal graphs, those with other confounders and selection variables.


Unsupervised Representation Learning via Neural Activation Coding
Yookoon Park Columbia University, Sangho Lee Seoul National University, Gunhee Kim Seoul National University, David Blei Columbia University

We present neural activation coding (NAC) as a novel approach for learning deep representations from unlabeled data for downstream applications. We argue that the deep encoder should maximize its nonlinear expressivity on the data for downstream predictors to take full advantage of its representation power. To this end, NAC maximizes the mutual information between activation patterns of the encoder and the data over a noisy communication channel. We show that learning for a noise-robust activation code increases the number of distinct linear regions of ReLU encoders, hence the maximum nonlinear expressivity. More interestingly, NAC learns both continuous and discrete representations of data, which we respectively evaluate on two downstream tasks: (i) linear classification on CIFAR-10 and ImageNet-1K and (ii) nearest neighbor retrieval on CIFAR-10 and FLICKR-25K. Empirical results show that NAC attains better or comparable performance on both tasks over recent baselines including SimCLR and DistillHash. In addition, NAC pretraining provides significant benefits to the training of deep generative models. Our code is available at https://github.com/yookoon/nac.


The Logical Options Framework
Brandon Araki MIT, Xiao Li MIT, Kiran Vodrahalli Columbia University, Jonathan DeCastro Toyota Research Institute, Micah Fry MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Daniela Rus MIT CSAIL

Learning composable policies for environments with complex rules and tasks is a challenging problem. We introduce a hierarchical reinforcement learning framework called the Logical Options Framework (LOF) that learns policies that are satisfying, optimal, and composable. LOF efficiently learns policies that satisfy tasks by representing the task as an automaton and integrating it into learning and planning. We provide and prove conditions under which LOF will learn satisfying, optimal policies. And lastly, we show how LOF’s learned policies can be composed to satisfy unseen tasks with only 10-50 retraining steps on our benchmarks. We evaluate LOF on four tasks in discrete and continuous domains, including a 3D pick-and-place environment.


Estimating Identifiable Causal Effects on Markov Equivalence Class through Double Machine Learning
Yonghan Jung Columbia University, Jin Tian Columbia University, Elias Bareinboim Columbia University

General methods have been developed for estimating causal effects from observational data under causal assumptions encoded in the form of a causal graph. Most of this literature assumes that the underlying causal graph is completely specified. However, only observational data is available in most practical settings, which means that one can learn at most a Markov equivalence class (MEC) of the underlying causal graph. In this paper, we study the problem of causal estimation from a MEC represented by a partial ancestral graph (PAG), which is learnable from observational data. We develop a general estimator for any identifiable causal effects in a PAG. The result fills a gap for an end-to-end solution to causal inference from observational data to effects estimation. Specifically, we develop a complete identification algorithm that derives an influence function for any identifiable causal effects from PAGs. We then construct a double/debiased machine learning (DML) estimator that is robust to model misspecification and biases in nuisance function estimation, permitting the use of modern machine learning techniques. Simulation results corroborate with the theory.


Environment Inference for Invariant Learning 
Elliot Creager University of Toronto, Joern Jacobsen Apple Inc., Richard Zemel Columbia University

Learning models that gracefully handle distribution shifts is central to research on domain generalization, robust optimization, and fairness. A promising formulation is domain-invariant learning, which identifies the key issue of learning which features are domain-specific versus domain-invariant. An important assumption in this area is that the training examples are partitioned into domains'' orenvironments”. Our focus is on the more common setting where such partitions are not provided. We propose EIIL, a general framework for domain-invariant learning that incorporates Environment Inference to directly infer partitions that are maximally informative for downstream Invariant Learning. We show that EIIL outperforms invariant learning methods on the CMNIST benchmark without using environment labels, and significantly outperforms ERM on worst-group performance in the Waterbirds dataset. Finally, we establish connections between EIIL and algorithmic fairness, which enables EIIL to improve accuracy and calibration in a fair prediction problem.


SketchEmbedNet: Learning Novel Concepts by Imitating Drawings
Alex Wang University of Toronto, Mengye Ren University of Toronto, Richard Zemel Columbia University

Sketch drawings capture the salient information of visual concepts. Previous work has shown that neural networks are capable of producing sketches of natural objects drawn from a small number of classes. While earlier approaches focus on generation quality or retrieval, we explore properties of image representations learned by training a model to produce sketches of images. We show that this generative, class-agnostic model produces informative embeddings of images from novel examples, classes, and even novel datasets in a few-shot setting. Additionally, we find that these learned representations exhibit interesting structure and compositionality.


Universal Template for Few-Shot Dataset Generalization
Eleni Triantafillou University of Toronto, Hugo Larochelle Google Brain, Richard Zemel Columbia University, Vincent Dumoulin Google

Few-shot dataset generalization is a challenging variant of the well-studied few-shot classification problem where a diverse training set of several datasets is given, for the purpose of training an adaptable model that can then learn classes from \emph{new datasets} using only a few examples. To this end, we propose to utilize the diverse training set to construct a \emph{universal template}: a partial model that can define a wide array of dataset-specialized models, by plugging in appropriate components. For each new few-shot classification problem, our approach therefore only requires inferring a small number of parameters to insert into the universal template. We design a separate network that produces an initialization of those parameters for each given task, and we then fine-tune its proposed initialization via a few steps of gradient descent. Our approach is more parameter-efficient, scalable and adaptable compared to previous methods, and achieves the state-of-the-art on the challenging Meta-Dataset benchmark.


On Monotonic Linear Interpolation of Neural Network Parameters
James Lucas University of Toronto, Juhan Bae University of Toronto, Michael Zhang University of Toronto, Stanislav Fort Google AI, Richard Zemel Columbia University, Roger Grosse University of Toronto

Linear interpolation between initial neural network parameters and converged parameters after training with stochastic gradient descent (SGD) typically leads to a monotonic decrease in the training objective. This Monotonic Linear Interpolation (MLI) property, first observed by Goodfellow et al. 2014, persists in spite of the non-convex objectives and highly non-linear training dynamics of neural networks. Extending this work, we evaluate several hypotheses for this property that, to our knowledge, have not yet been explored. Using tools from differential geometry, we draw connections between the interpolated paths in function space and the monotonicity of the network — providing sufficient conditions for the MLI property under mean squared error. While the MLI property holds under various settings (e.g., network architectures and learning problems), we show in practice that networks violating the MLI property can be produced systematically, by encouraging the weights to move far from initialization. The MLI property raises important questions about the loss landscape geometry of neural networks and highlights the need to further study their global properties.


A Computational Framework For Slang Generation
Zhewei Sun University of Toronto, Richard Zemel Columbia University, Yang Xu University of Toronto

Slang is a common type of informal language, but its flexible nature and paucity of data resources present challenges for existing natural language systems. We take an initial step toward machine generation of slang by developing a framework that models the speaker’s word choice in slang context. Our framework encodes novel slang meaning by relating the conventional and slang senses of a word while incorporating syntactic and contextual knowledge in slang usage. We construct the framework using a combination of probabilistic inference and neural contrastive learning. We perform rigorous evaluations on three slang dictionaries and show that our approach not only outperforms state-of-the-art language models, but also better predicts the historical emergence of slang word usages from 1960s to 2000s. We interpret the proposed models and find that the contrastively learned semantic space is sensitive to the similarities between slang and conventional senses of words. Our work creates opportunities for the automated generation and interpretation of informal language.


Wandering Within A World: Online Contextualized Few-Shot Learning
Mengye Ren University of Toronto, Michael Iuzzolino Google Research, Michael Mozer Google Research, Richard Zemel Columbia University

We aim to bridge the gap between typical human and machine-learning environments by extending the standard framework of few-shot learning to an online, continual setting. In this setting, episodes do not have separate training and testing phases, and instead models are evaluated online while learning novel classes. As in the real world, where the presence of spatiotemporal context helps us retrieve learned skills in the past, our online few-shot learning setting also features an underlying context that changes throughout time. Object classes are correlated within a context and inferring the correct context can lead to better performance. Building upon this setting, we propose a new few-shot learning dataset based on large scale indoor imagery that mimics the visual experience of an agent wandering within a world. Furthermore, we convert popular few-shot learning approaches into online versions and we also propose a new contextual prototypical memory model that can make use of spatiotemporal contextual information from the recent past.


Bayesian Few-Shot Classification With One-Vs-Each Polya-Gamma Augmented Gaussian Processes
Jake Snell University of Toronto, Richard Zemel Columbia University

Few-shot classification (FSC), the task of adapting a classifier to unseen classes given a small labeled dataset, is an important step on the path toward human-like machine learning. Bayesian methods are well-suited to tackling the fundamental issue of overfitting in the few-shot scenario because they allow practitioners to specify prior beliefs and update those beliefs in light of observed data. Contemporary approaches to Bayesian few-shot classification maintain a posterior distribution over model parameters, which is slow and requires storage that scales with model size. Instead, we propose a Gaussian process classifier based on a novel combination of Pólya-Gamma augmentation and the one-vs-each softmax approximation that allows us to efficiently marginalize over functions rather than model parameters. We demonstrate improved accuracy and uncertainty quantification on both standard few-shot classification benchmarks and few-shot domain transfer tasks.


Theoretical Bounds On Estimation Error For Meta-Learning
James Lucas University of Toronto, Mengye Ren University of Toronto, Irene Kameni African Master for Mathematical Sciences, Toni Pitassi Columbia University, Richard Zemel Columbia University

Machine learning models have traditionally been developed under the assumption that the training and test distributions match exactly. However, recent success in few-shot learning and related problems are encouraging signs that these models can be adapted to more realistic settings where train and test distributions differ. Unfortunately, there is severely limited theoretical support for these algorithms and little is known about the difficulty of these problems. In this work, we provide novel information-theoretic lower-bounds on minimax rates of convergence for algorithms that are trained on data from multiple sources and tested on novel data. Our bounds depend intuitively on the information shared between sources of data, and characterize the difficulty of learning in this setting for arbitrary algorithms. We demonstrate these bounds on a hierarchical Bayesian model of meta-learning, computing both upper and lower bounds on parameter estimation via maximum-a-posteriori inference.


A PAC-Bayesian Approach To Generalization Bounds For Graph Neural Networks
Renjie Liao University of Toronto, Raquel Urtasun University of Toronto, Richard Zemel Columbia University

In this paper, we derive generalization bounds for the two primary classes of graph neural networks (GNNs), namely graph convolutional networks (GCNs) and message passing GNNs (MPGNNs), via a PAC-Bayesian approach. Our result reveals that the maximum node degree and spectral norm of the weights govern the generalization bounds of both models. We also show that our bound for GCNs is a natural generalization of the results developed in arXiv:1707.09564v2 [cs.LG] for fully-connected and convolutional neural networks. For message passing GNNs, our PAC-Bayes bound improves over the Rademacher complexity based bound in arXiv:2002.06157v1 [cs.LG], showing a tighter dependency on the maximum node degree and the maximum hidden dimension. The key ingredients of our proofs are a perturbation analysis of GNNs and the generalization of PAC-Bayes analysis to non-homogeneous GNNs. We perform an empirical study on several real-world graph datasets and verify that our PAC-Bayes bound is tighter than others.

Carl Vondrick Wins NSF CAREER Award

Assistant Professor Carl Vondrick has won the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development award for his proposal program to develop machine perception systems that robustly detect and track objects even when they disappear from sight, thereby enabling machines to build spatial awareness of their surroundings.

Cross-disciplinary Research Highlighted in This Year’s Distinguished Lectures Series

The Distinguished Lecture series brings computer scientists to Columbia to discuss current issues and research that are affecting their particular fields. This year, eight experts covered topics ranging from machine learning, human-computer interaction, neural language models, law and public policy, psychology, and computer architecture.

Below are a couple of the lectures from prominent faculty from universities across the country.






Research by CS Undergrad Published in Cell

Payal Chandak (CC ’21) developed a machine learning model, AwareDX, that helps detect adverse drug effects specific to women patients. AwareDX mitigates sex biases in a drug safety dataset maintained by the FDA.

Below, Chandak talks about how her internship under the guidance of Nicholas Tatonetti, associate professor of biomedical informatics and a member of the Data Science Institute, inspired her to develop a machine learning tool to improve healthcare for women. 

Payal Chandak

How did the project come about? 
I initiated this project during my internship at the Tatonetti Lab (T-lab) the summer after my first year. T-lab uses data science to study the side effects of drugs. I did some background research and learned that women face a two-fold greater risk of adverse events compared to men. While knowledge of sex differences in drug response is critical to drug prescription, there currently isn’t a comprehensive understanding of these differences. Dr. Tatonetti and I felt that we could use machine learning to tackle this problem and that’s how the project was born. 

How many hours did you work on the project? How long did it last? 
The project lasted about two years. We refined our machine learning (ML) model, AwareDX, over many iterations to make it less susceptible to biases in the data. I probably spent a ridiculous number of hours developing it but the journey has been well worth it. 

Were you prepared to work on it or did you learn as the project progressed? 
As a first-year student, I definitely didn’t know much when I started. Learning on the go became the norm. I understood some things by taking relevant CS classes and through reading Medium blogs and GitHub repositories –– this ability to learn independently might be one of the most valuable skills I have gained. I am very fortunate that Dr. Tatonetti guided me through this process and invested his time in developing my knowledge. 

What were the things you already knew and what were the things you had to learn while working on the project? 
While I was familiar with biology and mathematics, computer science was totally new! In fact, T-Lab launched my journey to exploring computer science. This project exposed me to the great potential of artificial intelligence (AI) for revolutionizing healthcare, which in turn inspired me to explore the discipline academically. I went back and forth between taking classes relevant to my research and applying what I learned in class to my research. As I took increasingly technical classes like ML and probabilistic modelling, I was able to advance my abilities. 

Looking back, what were the skills that you wished you had before the project? 
Having some experience with implementing real-world machine learning projects on giant datasets with millions of observations would have been very valuable. 

Was this your first project to collaborate on? How was it? 
This was my first project and I worked under the guidance of Dr. Tatonetti. I thought it was a wonderful experience – not only has it been extremely rewarding to see my work come to fruition, but the journey itself has been so valuable. And Dr. Tatonetti has been the best mentor that I could have asked for! 

Did working on this project make you change your research interests? 
I actually started off as pre-med. I was fascinated by the idea that “intelligent machines” could be used to improve medicine, and so I joined T-Lab. Over time, I’ve realized that recent advances in machine learning could redefine how doctors interact with their patients. These technologies have an incredible potential to assist with diagnosis, identify medical errors, and even recommend treatments. My perspective on how I could contribute to healthcare shifted completely, and I decided that bioinformatics has more potential to change the practice of medicine than a single doctor will ever have. This is why I’m now hoping to pursue a PhD in Biomedical Informatics. 

Do you think your skills were enhanced by working on the project? 
Both my knowledge of ML and statistics and my ability to implement my ideas have grown immensely as a result of working on this project. Also, I failed about seven times over two years. We were designing the algorithm and it was an iterative process – the initial versions of the algorithm had many flaws and we started from scratch multiple times. The entire process required a lot of patience and persistence since it took over 2 years! So, I guess it has taught me immense patience and persistence. 

Why did you decide to intern at the T-Lab? 
I was curious to learn more about the intersection of artificial intelligence and healthcare. I’m endlessly fascinated by the idea of improving the standards of healthcare by using machine learning models to assist doctors. 

Would you recommend volunteering or seeking projects out to other students? 
Absolutely. I think everyone should explore research. We have incredible labs here at Columbia with the world’s best minds leading them. Research opens the doors to work closely with them. It creates an environment for students to learn about a niche discipline and to apply the knowledge they gain in class.