By Maureen C. Curran
San Diego, CA, February 20, 2007 -- The first floor of Atkinson Hall was abuzz with state-of-the-art information theory and applications research as the UCSD division of Calit2 hosted the week-long second annual Information Theory and Applications (ITA) Workshop, January 29 through February 2.
Over 500 researchers from around the world attended a diverse program of 270 talks distributed over four parallel tracks during the five workshop days. Many of the leading researchers in information theory, machine learning, communication networks, statistics and life sciences, presented their latest research. The first two days focused on information theory and communications, while Thursday and Friday sessions centered on applications.
The workshop was organized by the Calit2-based Information Theory and Applications (ITA) Center, which was launched last year. Alon Orlitsky, ITA center director, Sanjoy Dasgupta and Alexander Vardy were the general chairs. Massimo Franceschetti, Tara Javidi and Paul Siegel were the technical chairs. All of the chairs are faculty members in UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering.
The broad scope of topics was by design. In addition to talks on the latest research in information theory and related disciplines, the program also reflected the growing interest in incorporating information and computer-science theory into practical applications. "We wanted the meeting to represent diverse disciplines," said ITA's Orlitsky, "and to bring together researchers who work on different applications, yet share similar backgrounds, techniques and philosophies."
"It is not just engineers and computer scientists that are interested in information theory," explained Todd Coleman from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), "Information theory is deeply tied to several other fields. Some connections, such as to statistics, have been around for a long time, but recently people have realized that if applied properly, information theoretic techniques can be useful in a multitude of other domains as well."
The workshop's applications focus this year was machine learning. The agenda included four 1.5-hour machine-learning tutorials and the keynote address of Michael I. Jordan on "Recent Developments in Nonparametric, Hierarchical Bayesian Modeling." Jordan is the Pehong Chen Distinguished Professor in the departments of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences and Statistics at UC Berkeley.
Wednesday morning was devoted to Graduation-Day presentations, in which graduating Ph.D. students and recent postdocs presented their research; this allowed participants to see what the field's future researchers are working on now. The talks, which were allocated more time and comprised fewer parallel sessions than regulars talks, were very well received.
"I really liked the Graduation-Day presentations," said Brian Kurkoski, of the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo, "It is interesting to see what graduating students are doing." Kurkoski received his doctorate from UCSD's Jacobs School a few years ago.
Abstracts of all talks are available online. The keynote presentation, the panel discussion and the open-problems session were webcast in real time, and are now archived for on-demand viewing. (Links for both can be found below.)
The ITA workshop is quickly becoming a major meeting in the field, "I really enjoyed the ITA Workshop, it's impressive. The quality of the work is excellent. It's almost as if we have two ISITs now, one in the summer and one in the winter," commented UIUC's Coleman, referring to the annual IEEE International Symposium on Information Theory, the preeminent information theory conference.
"I think it's amazing how Alon has put UCSD on the map with this conference," said Miroslav Krstic, of the Jacobs School, "It has become the focal point for activities in information theory, communications and even broader in the areas of signals and systems." Krstic organized a session on "Control Systems in Communications Networks."
To make the workshop stand out from other meetings, the organizers added some special touches. Some were personal: the attendees were individually invited by the organizers, the workshop's website and poster included the participants' pictures, the speakers were introduced via a biography that was uploaded online and workshop pictures were posted on the ITA website. Others were technical: talk titles were directly entered online by the speakers who could then modify them interactively and the abstracts and papers were directly linked from the titles and could be viewed during the workshop.
Most sessions were organized and chaired by UCSD faculty. Some of the unique sessions were the Panel Discussion on publications issues, organized by Paul Siegel and the Open Problem Session, organized by Alex Vardy. Both were very well attended and received.
Faculty members were also involved in organizing events that they do not normally do. A social trip to Torrey Pines State Park was organized and guided by Tara Javidi and Young-Han Kim. It included a hike, a light picnic at the beach and a photo session at sunset. The banquet's musical performance, "ITA Rocks," was organized by Massimo Franceschetti and featured "Doctor Shannon's Lonely Hearts Club Band" which was made up of well-known researchers, UCSD faculty and graduate students. Light-heartedly emceed by David Neuhoff of the University of Michigan, the band received enthusiastic applause and even got many otherwise serious researchers to get up and dance.
The unconventional organization approach was appreciated by the attendees, who made comments such as: "very well organized," "quite a bit of wit and humor," "very well thought out, the poster, the banquet ceremony, it's impressive," "very funny" and "great success."
"The ITA Workshop has some really nice things that don't happen at other conferences," summed up Kurkoski. He also noted: "It is big enough with a critical mass, but small enough to do some nice things."
"It's difficult for people to leave their work and home and come for yet another workshop," said ITA's Orlitsky, "We wanted to show the guests that we appreciated their effort, and we did greatly enjoy hosting them."