Rylan Schaeffer

Kernel Papers

8 March 2021

The Idea Machine

by rylanschaeffer@gmail.com

Learning at Harvard and MIT in the Age of Artificial Intelligence


One of my favorite books is The Idea Factory: Learning to Think at MIT by Pepper White. It tells Pepper’s story as a student earning his Master’s in Mechanical Engineering at MIT in the 1980s, capturing his experiences as a student and as a researcher, including his constant feelings of inadequacy. Forty years later, as a Master’s student at Harvard conducting research in MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Science Department, these posts are my stories, inspired by Pepper and in tribute to those who came before. To highlight my favorite quote, “If I could see […] an insight, a new way of looking at [a problem] that would maybe, just maybe, find its way into future generations […] In the Eiffel tower of technology, I would be a rivet.”

Presenting My Research Vision to the Lab

After we submitted to UAI, I told Ila that I had a vision of ten papers that I thought would be novel, interesting and quick to implement. The papers would build on one another to deliver a powerful final result. She asked me whether I’d be willing to present my research vision to the lab. My initial response was no. I told her that I’d rather spend that time working on the projects, but after a little bit of pressure and some reflection, I realized there might be utility in my putting my thoughts into writing and utility in soliciting feedback from my lab, so I wrote to tell her that I’d present.

After spending 10+ hours preparing the talk (slides take a lot of time!) and speaking for 80 minutes, I left the meeting with no feedback. It led me to ask: under what conditions is presenting a good use of one’s time? The answer I came up with is basically never.

  1. Suppose you want to sell yourself (e.g. a jobs talk). Ideally, the buyer should already know you and your work and the buyer should already want you. If you have to give a talk, that likely means you approached the process poorly positioned.
  2. Suppose you want to communicate your ideas to others. If there are a large number of people, fine, but if there’s only a handful of people, why not grab a whiteboard and walk through your thinking?
  3. Suppose you want to collect your thoughts. A presentation is overkill
  4. Suppose you want to solicit others’ feedback. Why haven’t you already asked for it?

Birthday Cake

Ila sent me a surprise birthday cake, a Sachertorte, which is a rich chocolate cake originally from Vienna. Mom nibbled the cake from the inside-out, leaving Dad and I to discover the hollow inside the chocolate fudge exterior.

Catchup Call with Akshay

I had a delightful catch up call with Akshay (my high school debate partner). He’s recently been working on writing short fiction. Initially, he tried short (5000 word) science fiction, but he said he found that establishing a world while leaving sufficient word count to introduce characters and a meaningful story was challenging, so he decided to work instead with realistic fiction (I’m not sure whether this is the correct term - I mean fictitious stories that take place in the real world. His first published work is forthcoming.

He also said something I liked. He was telling me how he planned to try writing a 20,000 word story and I asked how much harder he expected that to be. He said he expected it to be easier, and I asked why. He said, “If there’s one thing I learned as a chemical engineer at Berkeley, the hardest parts of any process are starting it and stopping it.” I loved that.

Hiking the Stanford Dish with Brandon

I went hiking with a future lab mate, Brandon, at Stanford’s dish. He told me how, as an undergrad at MIT, he worked with Professor Manu Prakash at Stanford on making a hand-operated paper centrifuge for regions to test blood for malaria and HIV without needing to buy expensive centrifuges. Their work was published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

tags: idea-machine - 2021 - MIT - Harvard