Getting connected

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Getting connected

After the first year or two, you'll have some idea of what subfield you are going to be working in. At this point-or even earlier-it's important to get plugged into the Secret Paper Passing Network. This informal organization is where all the action in AI really is. Trend-setting work eventually turns into published papers-but not until at least a year after the cool people know all about it. Which means that the cool people have a year's head start on working with new ideas.

How do the cool people find out about a new idea? Maybe they hear about it at a conference; but much more likely, they got it through the Secret Paper Passing Network. Here's how it works. Jo Cool gets a good idea. She throws together a half-assed implementation and it sort of works, so she writes a draft paper about it. She wants to know whether the idea is any good, so she sends copies to ten friends and asks them for comments on it. They think it's cool, so as well as telling Jo what's wrong with it, they lend copies to their friends to Xerox. Their friends lend copies to their friends, and so on. Jo revises it a bunch a few months later and sends it to AAAI. Six months later, it first appears in print in a cut-down five-page version (all that the AAAI proceedings allow). Jo eventually gets around to cleaning up the program and writes a longer revised version (based on the feedback on the AAAI version) and sends it to the AI Journal. AIJ has almost two years turn-around time, what with reviews and revisions and publication delay, so Jo's idea finally appears in a journal form three years after she had it-and almost that long after the cool people first found out about it. So cool people hardly ever learn about their subfield from published journal articles; those come out too late.

You, too, can be a cool people. Here are some heuristics for getting connected:

There's a bunch of electronic mailing lists that discuss AI subfields like connectionism or vision. Get yourself on the ones that seem interesting.

Whenever you talk about an idea you've had with someone who knows the field, they are likely not to give an evaluation of your idea, but to say, ``Have you read X?'' Not a test question, but a suggestion about something to read that will probably be relevant. If you haven't read X, get the full reference from your interlocutor, or better yet, ask to borrow and Xerox his copy.

When you read a paper that excites you, make five copies and give them to people you think will be interested in it. They'll probably return the favor.

The lab has a number of on-going informal paper discussion groups on various subfields. These meet every week or two to discuss a paper that everyone has read.

Some people don't mind if you read their desks. That is, read the papers that they intend to read soon are heaped there and turn over pretty regularly. You can look over them and see if there's anything that looks interesting. Be sure to ask before doing this; some people do mind. Try people who seem friendly and connected.

Similarly, some people don't mind your browsing their filing cabinets. There are people in the lab who are into scholarship and whose cabinets are quite comprehensive. This is often a faster and more reliable way to find papers than using the school library.

Whenever you write something yourself, distribute copies of a draft of it to people who are likely to be interested. (This has a potential problem: plagiarism is rare in AI, but it does happen. You can put something like ``Please do not photocopy or quote'' on the front page as a partial prophylactic.) Most people don't read most of the papers they're given, so don't take it personally when only a few of the copies you distribute come back with comments on them. If you go through several drafts-which for a journal article you should-few readers will read more than one of them. Your advisor is expected to be an exception.

When you finish a paper, send copies to everyone you think might be interested. Don't assume they'll read it in the journal or proceedings spontaneously. Internal publication series (memos and technical reports) are even less likely to be read.

The more different people you can get connected with, the better. Try to swap papers with people from different research groups, different AI labs, different academic fields. Make yourself the bridge between two groups of interesting people working on related problems who aren't talking to each other and suddenly reams of interesting papers will flow across your desk.

When a paper cites something that looks interesting, make a note of it. Keep a log of interesting references. Go to the library every once in a while and look the lot of them up. You can intensively work backward through a ``reference graph'' of citations when you are hot on the trail of an interesting topic. A reference graph is a web of citations: paper A cites papers B and C, B cites C and D, C cites D, and so on. Papers that you notice cited frequently are always worth reading. Reference graphs have weird properties. One is that often there are two groups of people working on the same topic who don't know about each other. You may find yourself close to closure on searching a graph and suddenly find your way into another whole section. This happens when there are different schools or approaches. It's very valuable to understand as many approaches as possible-often more so than understanding one approach in greater depth.

Hang out. Talk to people. Tell them what you're up to and ask what they're doing. (If you're shy about talking to other students about your ideas, say because you feel you haven't got any, then try talking to them about the really good-or unbelievably foolish-stuff you've been reading. This leads naturally into the topic of what one might do next.) There's an informal lunch group that meets in the seventh floor playroom around noon every day. People tend to work nights in our lab, and so go for dinner in loose groups. Invite yourself along.

If you interact with outsiders much-giving demos or going to conferences-get a business card. Make it easy to remember your name.

At some point you'll start going to scientific conferences. When you do, you will discover fact that almost all the papers presented at any conference are boring or silly. (There are interesting reasons for this that aren't relevant here.) Why go to them then? To meet people in the world outside your lab. Outside people can spread the news about your work, invite you to give talks, tell you about the atmosphere and personalities at a site, introduce you to people, help you find a summer job, and so forth. How to meet people? Walk up to someone whose paper you've liked, say ``I really liked your paper'', and ask a question.

Get summer jobs away at other labs. This gives you a whole new pool of people to get connected with who probably have a different way of looking at things. One good way to get summer jobs at other labs is to ask senior grad students how. They're likely to have been places that you'd want to go and can probably help you make the right connections.

A whole lot of people at MIT