En Route to AI PhD: NSF Fellowship Weeks 0–5

Jesse Parent: A free-form set of thoughts on my experience as part of the inaugural cohort of the National Science Foundation’s CSGrad4US Fellowship. In this post, background and stage setting.

An Introduction

October 4, 2021: This post is a bit of a rush-up recap of the last month or so since this period of my life began. Finding out about the fellowship was a late-August surprise, after an unassuming email notification. I still remember Orthogonal Research and Education Lab PI, Dr Bradly Alicea for his letter of recommendation months ago. August was also my first month after moving to Boston, following a whirlwind of a summer abroad on a bit of travel, new jobs, research, and maybe “a week of vacation in London surrounding a business trip to Oxford.” It was also exciting to be lead organizer and co-host for the Discussion Group at CogSci 2021 “Trajectories in Cognitive Science”, as well as participate in a slew of other connference activity at OREL. Seeing Boston at the end of summer, and finding I know many colleagues, academic, general nerds, and friends here already, was a treat.

CogsSci 2021 Advert!
Late September, Charles River, Boston

Fellowship Advent

The fellowship itself has gotten off to peaceful start, relatively. We’ve only technically had two “weeks of meetings” for the training portion of the program so far; in essence, fellows get 2 years of mentoring and cohort group meetings during the application and (ideally) first-year of studies.

So what do you want to specialize in, though?

One of my biggest choices right now, outside of schools and advisors of course, is this need to investigate spatial computing, VR/AR/XR, robotics, and potentially multi-modal machine learning. Those seeds have been buried a long time ago but are now popping through the soil, and I’m left wondering if I ought to tailor some of my research interests to those arenas. I have had a major impetus in learning about the Metacognition workshop at NeurIPS 2021, but not quite enough time to finish a short-paper for it, disappointingly. (I may still submit something to Neuromatch 4.0 however!)

Visions of Research

Sometime in the last two weeks, I had a particular vision of a macro-research project involving expanding the capacity of AI systems towards more generalizable intelligence (of course) — and specifically towards higher-level capacities involving representing other agent’s needs. Ideally, other human’s needs, in terms of both generic physical requirements (HealthTech), but more so inner world-needs. This is significantly lofty, and yet, I seem to b drawn to it nevertheless. So much of my life has been about understanding boundaries, trauma, trans-genrational influence on norms, self-image, understanding, and the like; it’s easy to put it into agent-environment relations, yes. But if there is a way I can transfer my insights into something a AI system could understand — or at least help other humans understand — that seems worthwhile. An “AI”, (or I might prefer the use of an AI Agent), that could properly understand everything going on in a DnD game, for example, may be a concrete, more communicable target.

A “Post-Script”

On the world as it is right now

I think I would be remiss to conclude this letter without one section on what’s actually going on, in 2021. I can’t help but think in many ways the world is in a techno-stupor, and a pandemic hangover. Perhaps the better word is “shell-shocked”, maybe mixed with “jaded”, and honestly, a limited sense of hope, and of the future. It’s somewhat masked in laid back music and a hesitancy about asserting anything beyond the need for not-too-strong restrictions, but the zeitgeist to me feels challenging. So many of my friends are, frankly, burdened with the world, with shots/jabs, with planning how to distance, masks, lack of social engagement, lack of social support. Is this part of the inevitable turn into living a more virtual world as our social and physical environment decays (ala, Dan Fagella)? Maybe.

“Fellowship” of the Future? Invest your Hope

But there is a real sense of obligation I feel, to be candid. Much of my research interests and justifications for going into a PhD program lie on betting on future outputs. I’m not particularly interested in becoming another ML PhD who works at a Big Tech company to tweak your ads to better fit your demographics and niche interests. I wonder sometimes about the choices I’ve made, in terms of politics, or simply living a quiet life. But each time I come back to my passion being research, “academia”, or at least collaborative inquisition for knowledge, and seeking to use that to improve things. So what do I do in that context?

NeurIPS 2021

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Jesse Parent

NSF Grad Fellow, Researching Embodied Intelligence — AI+CogSci. Program Lead @ Orthogonal Research and Education Lab. Founder @ JOPRO.