I have attended eight international academic conferences that contain refereed paper proceedings. My situation is much different nowadays as compared to the middle of 2016, when I had attended zero academic conferences, thought my research career was going nowhere, and that I would leave Berkeley without a PhD.

The most recent conference I attended was also my first virtual one, the 2020 Robotics: Science and Systems, one of the world’s premier robotics conferences. It occurred last month, and in keeping up with the tradition of my blog, I will briefly discuss what happened while adding some thoughts about virtual conferences.

RSS 2020: The Workshop Days

RSS 2020 consisted of five days, with the first two dedicated to workshops. For the two workshop days, I checked the schedule in advance and decided on one workshop per day to attend, to avoid overextending my attention span and to keep my schedule manageable. For the first day, I attended the 2nd Workshop on Closing the Reality Gap in Sim2Real Transfer for Robotics. It was a fun one: much of it consisted of pre-recorded, two-on-two debates addressing controversial statements:

  • “Investing into Sim2Real is a waste of time and money”
  • “Sim2Real is old news. It’s just X (X=model-based RL, X=domain randomization, X=system identification)”
  • “Sim2Real requires highly accurate physical simulators and photorealistic rendering”

I am a huge fan of Sim2Real, and several of my papers use the technique, so I was especially galled by the first claim. Surely it can’t possibly be a waste of time and money? (Full disclosure: one of my PhD advisors agrees with me and was in the debate arguing against the first claim, but I still would hold that belief even if he was not involved. You’ll have to take my word on that.) Going through the debate was enjoyable – despite my opposition to the statement, I appreciated the perspectives of the two CMU professors, Abhinav Gupta and Chris Atkeson, arguing in favor of the claim. While researching the academic publications of those professors, I found Chris Atkeson’s impressive and persuasive 100-page paper providing his advice for starting graduate students, which features some Sim2Real discussion.

Rather than try to further describe my messy notes, I will refer you to my former colleague (and now CMU PhD student) Jacky Liang, who wrote a nice summary of the workshop. I am still going to be doing some Sim2Real work in the near future, and particularly nowadays due to the pandemic limiting access to physical robots, an obvious point that was somehow only articulated at the end of the workshop, by Berkeley Professor Anca Dragan.

For the next day, I attended the workshop on Self-Supervised Robot Learning. This was a four-hour workshop, and one that was more traditional in the sense that it was a series of longer talks by professors and research scientists, with shorter “lightning talks” by authors of accepted workshop papers. I chose to attend this because I am very interested in the topic, and think getting automatic supervision without tedious, manual labeling is key for scaling up robots to the real world. Here’s a relevant blog post of mine if you would like to read more.

There were seven speakers, and I have personally spoken to six of them (all except Abhinav Gupta):

  • Dieter Fox: discussed KinectFusion and self-correspondences with descriptors. I knew some of this material from reading the relevant papers, and (you guessed it) I have a relevant blog post.
  • Abhinav Gupta: talked about much of newly-appointed Professor Lerrel Pinto’s work in scaling up robot learning. I have read almost all of Lerrel Pinto’s early papers and was pleased to see them resurface here.
  • Pierre Sermanet: discussed his “learning from play” papers which involve planning and learning from language. It’s fascinating stuff, and I have his papers on my “to read” list.
  • Roberto Calandra: provided a series of “lessons learned” in doing robot learning research, and commented about how COVID-19 might mandate more self-supervised robots that can run on their own.
  • Chelsea Finn: presented a chronology over the last 5 years about how we acquire data for robot learning, and how we can make this scale up. Critically, we need to broaden the training data distribution to cover more test-time scenarios.
  • Pieter Abbeel: presented the CURL and RAD papers which suggest that learning from pixels can be as efficient as learning from state. I have read the papers in some detail, and helped with formatting the recent BAIR blog post about CURL and RAD.
  • Andy Zeng: provided his thoughts on the “object-ness” assumption in robot learning, and how he was able to get automatic labels for his papers. I described some of his great work in this blog post. I am also very fortunate to have him as my Google summer internship host!

It was a great workshop with great speakers.

RSS 2020: The Conference Days

The next three days were the formal conference days. In general, the schedule was similar for each day. Each had live talks and two hours of live poster sessions of accepted papers, all happening over Zoom. RSS is still a relatively small robotics conference, with only 103 accepted papers in 2020, in contrast to ICRA and IROS which now have well over 1000 accepted papers each year. This meant that RSS was “single track,” so only one thing was formally happening at once.

After the opening talks to introduce us to virtual RSS, we had the first of the two-hour paper discussion sections. I stayed primarily in the Zoom room allocated to my paper at RSS 2020.

University of Washington Professor Byron Boots gave an “early career” talk in the afternoon, featuring online learning and regret analysis, which befits his publication list. Some of his work involves analyzing Model Predictive Control (MPC), and once again I felt relieved about my RSS paper, which used MPC. Working on that project has made it so much easier for me to understand MPC and related topics.

The second day began with a Diversity and Inclusion panel, featuring people such as Michigan Professor Chad Jenkins. I watched the discussion and thought it went well. We then had the usual two hours of paper discussions. Most Zoom rooms were almost empty, with the exception of the paper authors. Honestly, I like this, because it made it easy for me to talk with various paper authors.

The keynote talk by MIT Professor Josh Tenenbaum later that day was excellent. He’s done great work in areas that overlap with robotics, most notably computer vision and psychology, and I was thinking about how I could incorporate his findings into my research agenda.

The third day of the conference began with a discussion and a town hall. Many conferences have started these discussions, which I suspect is in large part to solicit feedback on how to make conferences more inclusive to the research community. I recall that a conference organizer mentioned that we have professional real-time captioning for all the major talks, and praised it. I agree! There was some Q & A at the end, and one thought-provoking comment came from an audience member who thought that hybrid conferences that combine virtual and in-person events would not work well. While the commenter made it clear that he/she wanted to see a hybrid event work, there is a huge risk in creating an inequity to favor people who are there in-person over those who are attending virtually. It will be interesting to see what happens with ICRA 2021, which is planned to be in Xi’an, China, next May. The ICRA 2021 website is already saying that the conference will be hybrid.

After this, we had the usual paper discussions, followed by Stanford Professor Jeannette Bohg’s excellent early career talk. The day concluded with the paper awards and the farewell talk. First, congratulations to Google for winning several awards! Second, the conference organizers said they could not provide any definitive information about where RSS would be held next year.

RSS 2020: Thoughts

I read through various blog posts before attending RSS, such as one from Berkeley Professor Ben Recht and one from the organizers of ICLR 2020, which was one of the first conferences in 2020 that was forced to go virtual, so I had a rough sense of what to expect from a virtual conference. As usual, though, there’s no substitute for going through the process in person (I’m not sure if that should be a pun or not). Here are some brief thoughts:

  • The conference had some virtual rooms, which I think are called “gather” sessions, for informal chats. Unfortunately, almost every time I logged into these rooms, I was the only one there. Did people make heavy use of these? On a related note, there were a few slack channels for the workshops, but I think hardly anyone used them. Maybe Slack channels should be deprioritized for smaller virtual conferences?
  • Since it looks like many conferences will be virtual or hybrid going forward, perhaps we should get rid of the requirement that at least one author of each accepted paper has to physically attend the conference. Given the COVID-19 situation, and also geopolitical issues pertaining to visas and immigration, it seems like people ought to have the option to avoid travel.
  • Getting a smaller conference to be time-zone friendly is a huge challenge. With a larger one like ICLR, it’s possible to have the conference run 24/7 with something happening for each time zone, but I don’t know of a good solution for one the size of RSS.
  • I didn’t have the ability to set aside my entire week for the conference, since I was still interning at Google while this was happening, though I suppose I could have asked for a few days off. This meant I worked more on research than I usually do during conferences. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
  • While I didn’t ask questions during the talks, I think a virtual setting makes it easier for many of us to ask questions. In a physical conference, we might have to walk to a microphone in an auditorium of thousands of people.
  • As mentioned earlier, I like the smaller Zoom sessions that replace physical poster sessions. It was far easier for me to engage in substantive conversations with other researchers. In contrast, when I was at NeurIPS 2019, I could barely talk to any author given the size and the crowded, elbow-to-elbow poster sessions.
  • I thought it was easier to get an academic accommodation; I requested professional captioning. For a virtual conference, it isn’t necessary to pay for someone (e.g., a sign language interpreter) to physically travel, which can increase costs.

To conclude this blog post, I want to thank the RSS organizers. I know things aren’t quite ideal, but virtual RSS went well, and I hope to attend in 2021, whether in person or virtual.