Tag Archives: artificial intelligence

What’s in a Name? The Other ICS Conference

(as always, see below for conference reminders and news)

Just after New Years I attended the INFORMS Computing Society (ICS) conference in Santa Fe. Fortunately or unfortunately their acronym works out as the same as our very own Institute for Computational Sustainability (ICS) . In a way this is fitting since a large number of their problems are sustainability related, particularly in power grid and water management.

The conference is meant to be a way for the Operation Research community to reach out to Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence researchers. The solution methods most commonly used are Integer Programming, Linear Programming and local search methods which are referred to as ‘meta-heuristics’. The focus is largely on exact optimization results but there is a growing amount of work on approximate solutions as well.

One exciting thing is there is a lot of interaction between this community and actual power supply or water management utilities in the United States. So it if you aren’t in this community it may be useful to consider comparing this work with your own learning and optimization methods on their problems or to compare to their methods. The abstracts are definitely worth a look and can be found here .

The conference was somewhat eye opening for me as someone in Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning to see how much work is still going in to making math programming optimization methods more and more powerful. It seems that at the very least these methods should be used for comparison when presenting clustering or planning results. Even better would be to increase the collaboration between these communities on using the best parts of different methods.

Here are some highlights from what I saw :

  • Rahul Jain at USC on MDPs for smart power grids as Linear Programs. Using the occupancy measure, how often states are visited, as a proxy for optimizing the policy directly. Modelled using conditional values as risk.
  • Michael Trick from CMU does the yearly scheduling for Major League Baseball amongst other things. He gave a very entertaining talk on how far LP solvers like CPLEX have come and how the process of many practitioners has shifted from trying to find ways to make the problem smaller, to trying to find ways to provide enough hints so that the highly optimized solvers can find better solutions. 
  • Warren Powell from Princeton spoke on general optimization techniques revising the tutorial he gave in Denmark last summer at ICS 2012 (The other ICS that is.). He also spoke on work their lab at Princeton is doing on management of power grids in real time where some of the relevant variables are highly stochastic such as weather or the hourly spot pricing for electricity.
  • A fascinating talk by Victor Zavala of Argonne National Labs on the need to optimize cooling in thermal power generation like nuclear or coal plants. This is hard because it relies on ready access to cool water so droughts, rain and humidity are actually very relevant for planning how to run your power plants. 
  • Nathaneal Brown from Sandia National Labs on the problem of planning maintenance of bridges and other urban infrastructure in such a way that effect of major earthquakes will be minimized. They consider maintaining multiple paths between major population centres and hospitals, etc.
  • Sarah Nurre at Renessealar Polytechnic Institute has an interesting problem of real time scheduling of power line restoration after hurricanes where requests arrive in real time but planning decisions about staff and materials need to be made beforehand and the goal is to restore power as quickly as possible.
  • Of course, I was there so I was presenting my own work in this area which is on policy gradient search methods for planning in spatiotemporal problems like forest management.

Some Light Reading For the Weekend

  • If you are looking for some light reading for the weekend the first mandated US National Climate Assessment has been released. It’s just 400 pages and includes the latest scientific knowledge on a range of topics in climate chance and sustainability with predictions and impacts on the climate in the US and at at least some data about Canada as well on brief perusal.


  • Conference: AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence with a special track on Computational Sustainability for the third year in a row. AAAI is Co-located this year with UAI2013.
    Deadlines: (Last Chance!) Abstracts: Jan 19, 2013. Papers: Jan 22, 2013.
    Time and Place:  July 14-18, 2013 in Bellevue, Washington, USA (near Seattle).
  • Conference: International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence The theme of IJCAI 2013 is “AI and computational sustainability“. The conference will include for the first time a special track dedicated to papers concerned with all the aspects of Computational Sustainability.
    Deadlines: Abstract: January 26, 2013. Paper: January 31, 2013.
    Time and Place: Beijing, China, on August 3-9, 2013.
  • (NEW) Conference: International Green Computing Conference including research on a broad range of topics in the fields of sustainable and energy-efficient computing, and computing for a more sustainable planet.
    Deadline: February 15, 2013
    Time and Place: Arlington, Virginia, USA. June 27-29, 2013.
  • Workshop: Energy Aware Software-Engineering and Development (EASED) provides a broad forum for researchers and practitioners to discuss ongoing works, latest results, and common topics of interest regarding the improvement of software induced energy consumption.
    Deadline: March 15, 2013
    Time and Place: Carl von Ossietzky University, Oldenburg, Germany
  • Conference : ICT for Sustainability Conference : aims to bring together leading researchers to take stock of the role of ICT in sustainability, to create an interdisciplinary synopsis, to inspire new approaches to unleash the potential of ICT for sustainability, and to improve methodologies of evaluating, developing, and governing the effects of ICT systems on the sustainability of societal and environmental systems.
    Deadline: passed.
    Time and Place:  ETH Zurich, Switzerland. February 14-16, 2013.

Are we missing something? Let us know or join the CompSust community on G+.

Inspiration for the Future from AAAI 2012

AAAI 2012 has gone for another year and it was a great conference by all accounts, as long as you stayed out of the Toronto heat. In an upcoming post we’ll have a more a detailed overview of the papers from the Computational Sustainability track. One thing most attendees would probably agree on was that this year’s plenary speaker’s lineup was fantastic. I found a few of the plenary talks particularly inspiring for the future of AI as well for Computational Sustainability research even though the talks were not focussed on that topic:

  • Judea Pearl was awarded the highest honour in Computer Science, the ACM Turing Award, for 2011 and he chose to give his ACM Turing Lecture at AAAI 2012. He provided a fascinating history of research into inference and causal learning. He argued that counterfactual reasoning is the best basis to create ‘mini-Turing tests’ since humans naturally and effortlessly carry out counterfactual reasoning all the time. Yet it is something that is still not widely used in modelling and AI systems.  Advances in causal inference and learning would of course be a huge benefit for all scientific pursuits. In sustainability sciences in particular, there is a huge amount of data collection being carried out and discovering causal relationships in this data (such as between native organisms and invaders, climate change and pollutants, policies and energy usage) are the core challenges in these fields. Algorithms and usable tools that scientists can use to more quickly test their causal hypothesis’ or discover new possible causal relationships would have a huge impact.
  • Christos Papadimitriou gave the AAAI Turing Lecture, which was an inspiring and very personal talk on the contributions of Alan Turing on this 100th anniversary of his birth. Papadimitriou compared Alan Turing to Charles Darwin as a founder of a field but also as a major contributor to the understanding of biology and evolution.  He described how computer science is transforming the fields of biology and genetics. One example are some recent results from his research group applies theoretical CS analysis to resolve the conundrum of sexual recombination in genetics. The problem, as I understand it, is that asexual recombination works perfectly well in many simple organisms, optimizing fitness as the number of offspring produced. So the question is, why do more complex organisms use sexual recombination? Why do they require two individuals when one seems to work perfectly well?  Their analysis and experiments show that sexual recombination is optimal if the fitness measure isn’t the number of offspring produced but rather, the ability to breed widely. Thus, robustness of breeding is being favoured over maximizing offspring. This is something which has apparently been hard for geneticists to work out from their point of view but from a computational perspective was more easily achievable.  The message from this being that we should never underestimate what contributions computer science can make to other fields of human knowledge. Even theoretical concepts can turn out to provide a better understanding of something in the world; but we as computer scientists need to reach out and make the connections ourselves, because it is unlikely else will.
  • Sebastian Thrun later spoke about the Google self-driving car project which he is a part of. It was a great update on how far Google has come in a remarkably short time towards a feasible self-driving car that can be used on a large scale. Attendees had a bit of an insider view of some of their latest results a few weeks before the media ran stories on Google making more confident announcements about how reliable their cars are compared to human drivers (spoiler: the self-driving cars are more reliable). As Thrun pointed out in his talk, there are still a small percentage of cases where the human driver needs to take over but under normal driving conditions these situations come  up on the order of every few months rather than hours or days. One obvious connection between self-driving cars and sustainability is energy efficiency. If a critical mass of cars on the road are self-driving then many options become possible such as coordinated traffic, drafting to increase fuel efficiency and more dynamic carpooling. Thrun pointed out that if you look at the utilization of roads in the USA very little of the space is actually used at any one time. Self-driving cars could tailgate much more closely and thus reduce the need to build more roads into existing natural areas. But the other lesson I took away from this is that along the way to attacking the problem of  self-driving cars they encountered challenging open problems, such as : how to combine huge amounts of data from heterogeneous sensors; how to dynamically switch datasources in real time when one system failed (eg. when the maps are out of date due to road construction); complex problems of spatial reasoning about the identity of objects showing up on the laser scanner (ie. is it a tree, another car or a person?).  Of course, all of this also needs to be done in real time with a very, very low failure rate because lives are on the line. By forcing themselves to deal with all these challenges at once in search of an ambitious goal they needed to find new solutions for visualization, learning, optimization and data management. I think one of the big Computer Science gains of Computational Sustainability research is a similar necessity of invention that arises from dealing with problems which are larger, more noisy or more heterogeneous than a simpler test domain would provide.
The CompSust track talks themselves were varied and fascinating. The interesting thing about CompSust sessions is that the computational methods can vary widely within a single session. The organizing topic, such as “spatiotemporal environmental modeling” for example, could hold together research utilizing hierarchical Gaussian processes, graph cut optimization and image segmentation.  The poster sessions were, of course, where all the real discussion happened and the CompSust aisles were heavily frequented from what I saw. You can find the full program here and we’ll have a more thorough review of the papers coming later.
What was your favourite part of the conference AAAI2012? Let us know in the comments.

Upcoming Deadlines

A regular list of upcoming workshops, courses, conferences and deadlines of relevance the CompSust community, if we’re missing something let us know!:

  • Workshop : CROCS at CP-12 – Otherwise known as the Workshop on Constraint Reasoning and Optimization for Computational Sustainability. This will be the 4th annual instantiation of the workshop. It’s a good opportunity to connect CompSust research with the constraint and optimization communities and as a bonus it’s in beautiful Quebec City.
  • Course : MOOC on Sustainability – Continuing the trend of large, free online courses (apparently we’re calling them Massively Online Open Courses (MOOC) now) the University of Illinois is providing a MOOC on Sustainability. So if you’re a computer scientist looking to get into sustainability problems and want a crash courses this is a cheap way to do it.
  • Journal deadline : Special Section on Computational Sustainability in IEEE Transactions on Computers (deadline: Oct 1, 2012)
  • Journal deadline : Machine Learning Journal Issue on Science and Society issue (deadline: Nov 16, 2012) : sustainability and the environment (ecology, smart grids, etc.) listed amongst the example topics.


Check out the growing list of community resources for more news and announcements, especially the mailing list. If you know about other news/conferences/deadlines/links of interest, feel free to share them with us and the community:

Computational Sustainability at AAAI-12

Next week is the next event in the summer of CompSust conferences. The Twenty-Sixth Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AAAI-12) is being held next week (July 22-26) in Toronto, Canada. So here’s a little preview of what to expect and how to get the most out of it.

The schedule for the entire conference can be found here. To get a taste of the kind of topics being covered you can take a look at  this excellent review of the papers from last year (complete with an handy chart) by Douglas Fisher from Vanderbilt University. Note that one of the two best papers from the entire conference was from the CompSust Track (“Computational Sustainability and Artificial Intelligence Track: Dynamic Resource Allocation in Conservation Planning” by Daniel Golovin, Andreas Krause, Beth Gardner, Sarah J. Converse, Steve Morey).

CompSust track papers from last year's AAAI-11. Courtesy of Douglas Fisher.

There isn’t a handy chart for this year’s conference yet but a quick look at the topics shows that many of the same topics will be covered as well as some new additions. A brief look at the sustainability topics includes: modelling climate change, ocean eddy monitoring, air pollution, forest management, wildlife conservation design, invasive species and infectious disease control,  power grid management and battery output prediction and control. Just from the titles the range of computational methods used includes at least : linear programming, Q-learning, Lagrangian relaxation, Inverse RL and Bayesian ensemble prediction.

Of course the point of having this track at the AAAI conference is to help broaden the field of AI research and showcase a large cluster of multi-disciplinary collaboration that is already going on. I can tell you that from last year’s conference, the CompSust sessions have a different feel than the other parallel tracks since there are a variety of computational methods being discussed within the same session whether it be on energy management or ecological planning. So if you want a change of pace from the method focussed tracks consider stopping by a CompSust session.


This conference will also be the launch of the official Twitter account for the Computational Sustainability field, @compsust. So follow us at @compsust for the latest updates on the conference or search for the #compsust or #aaai12 tags for posts about what interesting research people are talking about and share your own thoughts.


For discussion that needs more than 140 characters  you could also sign up for the Google+ event for the whole AAAI conference where you can discuss anything going on and meet up with people.

Mailing List

If you aren’t already on the yahoo groups mailing list for computational sustainability make sure you subscribe. There are announcements about conferences, journal deadlines and relevant science news for the community.

That’s all for now. See you next week!