Published on 22 Jan 2024

Fields Medallist Prof Hugo Duminil-Copin and Turing Award Laureate Prof Leslie Valiant’s Tea Session with NTU scholars and young scientists

Shi Qilun | CN Yang Scholar, School of Computer Science and Engineering, NTU

On 12 Jan 2024, the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) at Nanyang Technological University hosted the Lee Kong Chian Distinguished Professor Public Lecture featuring two distinguished speakers: Prof Hugo Duminil-Copin (Fields Medallist 2022) and Prof Leslie Valiant (Turing Award laureate 2010). A casual tea session was organised before their public lecture, providing students and young scientists with the opportunity to engage with the speakers and pose various questions.

Tea session with our two distinguished speakers, Prof Hugo Duminil-Copin (left) and Prof Leslie Valiant, moderated by Prof Juan-Pablo Ortega from the Division of Mathematical Sciences at SPMS, NTU (with mic).

A student pointed out that in our current era, the prevailing trend leans towards smart homes and a variety of technological accessories, prompting a question about the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in today's society. Prof Leslie Valiant explored extensively the contemporary AI landscape, emphasising its substantial role in various aspects of daily life and industries including automation, personal assistants, healthcare, finance, education, entertainment etc. He expressed quite an optimistic outlook on its swift progress and widespread applications. In contrast to negative speculations suggesting AI-induced job displacement and depicting a dystopian scenario of "mankind's enslavement by AI," Prof Valiant dismissed such notions as exaggerated.

It's often acknowledged that the foundational principles of AI have a strong mathematical basis, a knowledge that has been established for decades. This raises the question of how theoretical knowledge differs from the practical applications of AI. Prof Valiant conveyed a deep appreciation for computer science theories, emphasising their crucial role in comprehending and propelling the field of AI forward. He observed that while people tend to perceive theories and applications as distinct aspects in their daily lives, they harmoniously align at a higher level. This perspective underscores the significance of bridging the gap between theoretical understanding and practical implementation in the realm of AI.

To address a prevalent misconception, Prof Valiant clarified that, contrary to popular belief, machine learning algorithms possess inherent limitations at the current stage of theoretical analysis. Dispelling the misconception that "machine learning algorithms can learn everything out there," he asserted that there are definite boundaries to what these algorithms can achieve. This nuanced comprehension of the capabilities and limitations of machine learning contributes to fostering a more realistic and informed perspective on AI technology.

During the session, an inquisitive Ph.D. student posed a thought-provoking question to the esteemed professors, inquiring about the role of the interdisciplinary nature of their research in their eventual success. Both professors responded graciously, underscoring the importance of maintaining an open-minded stance and welcoming knowledge from diverse fields relevant to their primary research areas. The professors reiterated the significance of fostering an open-minded approach to research. They conveyed the idea that success in interdisciplinary pursuits arises from a willingness to explore and absorb insights from various fields that intersect with one's primary research focus. This adaptability and openness to diverse perspectives not only enhance one's understanding but also stimulate creativity and innovation in problem-solving. Drawing from personal experiences, Prof Duminil-Copin provided a noteworthy insight by quoting from his work: "let the knowledge percolate through you." This metaphorical expression suggests the concept of allowing information and insights from different disciplines to gradually permeate one's understanding. It advocates for a patient and absorbing approach, emphasising the transformative impact of integrating interdisciplinary knowledge. Collectively, the professors' responses communicated the idea that the success of their research endeavours could be attributed, at least in part, to their ability to navigate and appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of their work. This approach not only broadened their perspectives but also facilitated the making of connections between seemingly unrelated areas, contributing to the depth and richness of their research outcomes.

The thought-provoking discussion stimulated interest and curiosity among the students and young scientists.

When asked about approaches to handling challenging problems in research, Prof Duminil-Copin presented a unique perspective. He emphasised the importance of adopting a "brave" approach, encouraging the participants to confront difficulties head-on with a somewhat naive mindset. By advocating for courage in facing challenges and embracing a fresh perspective, Prof Duminil-Copin suggested that this approach often leads to unexpected breakthroughs. Additionally, he stressed the value of exploring multiple approaches instead of adhering to a singular method, recognising the dynamic and iterative nature of the research process. This openness to diverse methodologies reflects a willingness to experiment and adapt, acknowledging that different problems may require different solutions. Prof Valiant echoed these sentiments. He acknowledged that failures are an inherent part of the research journey, occurring on a daily basis. Rather than fearing dead-ends and obstacles, Prof Valiant emphasised the need for resilience. He suggested that researchers should be equipped to recover quickly from setbacks and continue moving forward. The advice from both professors suggested that, in the face of difficulties, researchers should not be deterred by the prospect of failure. Instead, they should confront problems courageously, be open to exploring various approaches, and possess the resilience to bounce back from setbacks swiftly.

Regarding the motivations that led them to pursue research, Prof Duminil-Copin shared a light-hearted and personal anecdote. He explained that his initial interest in physics during high school took a pragmatic turn. Despite aspiring to major in physics, he humorously revealed that his mathematics grades were better. In response to this, he opted for the "middle ground," choosing a path that allowed him to leverage mathematics as a tool to explain physical phenomena. This decision showcased a practical and adaptive approach, highlighting how one's academic journey can be shaped by unexpected yet decisive factors. In contrast, Prof Valiant recounted a more serendipitous motivation for his research endeavours. He described his initiation into the world of research as an "accidental discovery." While exploring the concept of computability of Turing Machines during his research, Prof Valiant stumbled upon a published paper that captivated his intellectual curiosity. This unexpected encounter sparked his interest and set him on a trajectory towards research. Prof Valiant's story highlighted the unpredictable nature of academic inspiration, showcasing how a chance discovery can lead to profound and enduring academic pursuits. These stories not only humanised the academic journey but also illustrated the variety of paths that individuals take in entering the world of research.

When offering advice to young researchers at both graduate and undergraduate levels, both professors emphasised the significance of personal interests and stressed the importance of collaboration. Prof Valiant advised them to be mindful of the dual aspects of collaboration and competition within the realm of computer science, emphasising their complementary roles in advancing academic progress. He clarified that collaboration and competition are not mutually exclusive concepts. On the other hand, Prof Duminil-Copin emphasised the need for young researchers to discover a community where they feel a sense of belonging, fostering open discussions with like-minded individuals. Additionally, he highlighted the virtues of patience and the cultivation of confidence in problem-solving abilities. Contrary to concerns about the lack of experience among undergraduate researchers, Prof Duminil-Copin encouraged them to embrace the learning process. He suggested that they allocate sufficient time to develop a deeper understanding and establish conceptual connections within their respective fields. Furthermore, he advocated for the importance of seeking out experienced mentors who can provide valuable guidance in navigating the complexities of research.

In short, the session comprehensively addressed various facets of Artificial Intelligence (AI), including dispelling pessimistic views, exploring the interdisciplinary nature of research, discussing strategies for overcoming challenges, sharing personal motivations for research, and providing advice for young researchers, with a particular emphasis on the importance of personal interests, collaboration, and finding a supportive community.

Group photo after a stimulating conversation session with Prof Hugo Duminil-Copin and Prof Leslie Valiant.