A Physicist at NIPS2015

16 December 2015

Last week I attended the second half of NIPS 2015. It was great! I am an experimental particle physicist, not a professional machine-learning guy. This was the first time I went to NIPS and it was very different from big conferences I have experienced in particle physics.

This post is a summary of my impressions, and a reading list of sorts.

A physicist's view of NIPS

A physicist's view of NIPS. Image Credit: Googler Mike Tyka’s Inceptionism Library

Conference format

NIPS takes place from Monday to Saturday. The first day is tutorials, and the last two are dedicated to workshops. On all other days the conference operates in single track mode. There are a few longer talks each day but the majority of the time is dedicated to "spotlight" talks. These are three minute long talks about a selected few of the day's posters. Then there are the epic poster sessions each day.

The workshops are organised by "outsiders" (not conference organisers), and there are a lot of them in parallel.

Overall about 3700 people attended the conference.


I was not just a tourist in machine-learning wonderland, I had to do some work as well. I gave an invited talk at the ALEPH workshop on Friday. In the same workshop Gilles talked about some work we did together: Pitfalls of evaluating a classifier's performance in high energy physics applications.

More physicists should go and give talks at NIPS. You can learn a lot, make connections to people you would not otherwise meet, and have your mind blown by the craze that is deep learning.

Particle physics (HEP) has hard and interesting problems to solve. Attracting the skills of the machine learning community would be great. HEP would make progress faster, and it would spark interesting research for the NIPS community. Right now the barrier to entry to HEP is extremely high though. We should work on fixing that.

Posters, posters, posters

The first surprise was that how many poster sessions there are at NIPS and how well attended they are.

Given the conference format, it makes sense, but it was still surprising for me. At most physics conferences the focus is on short talks in parallel sessions.

I enjoyed having the opportunity to ask really dumb questions to the poster presenters without having to reveal my ignorance to a room full of experts. I tried to prepare for the two poster sessions I was in town for by reading the abstracts for that session. It helped, but I would have had to do a lot mroe studying for it to be really useful. Just walking around and reading the introduction to each poster turned out to be quite a good strategy. I usually ran out of posters before the session was over.

Free stuff

The other big differnce was how many people from industry attended the conference. Basically everywhere you saw someone wearing something branded by Google DeepMind or FAIR.

There were also a lot of parties or dinners organised by companies. This does not happen at physics conferences. I am sure if you wanted to you could have eaten and drunk for free all week. Ideal for grad students?!?

Below follows a collection of things I found interesting or want to investigate further. It is half todo list, and half recommendations.


There are a lot of them. Interesting thoughts about how to organise coopetitions if the aim is to produce and share new knowledge. The ALPEH Workshop, not just because I gave a talk there ... Bayesian optimisation, we optimise everything! Reasoning, attention, memory, did not attend but looking forward to videos. Transfer learning, what if training and testing densities are not the same (also known as: my simulator is not perfect!!).

Reading list

This is a unordered list of posters, talks or otherwise interesting things that ended up on my reading list. karpathy's machine-learning powered overview of the NIPS papers.

All accepted papers are listed here: Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 28


It was a great experience! I saw a great deal of new things, and I now have reading material for the next few months. Let's see if I ever get to the end. If you get a chance to go to NIPS, take it. NIPS will be in Barcelona in 2016.