The New Age of Virtual Conferences

For decades, the scientific community has witnessed a growing trend towards online collaboration, publishing, and communication. The next natural step, started over the past decade, has been the emergence of virtual lectures, workshops, and conferences. My first virtual workshop took place back in about 2011 when I was asked to co-moderate a virtual session about 10 talks on MRI methods and neurophysiology. It was put on jointly by the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) and the Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) and considered an innovative experiment at the time. I recall running it from a hotel room with spotty internet in Los Angeles as I was also participating in an in-person workshop at UCLA at the same time. It went smoothly, as the slides displayed well, speakers came through clearly, and, at the end of each talk, participants were able to ask questions by text which I could read to the presenter. It was easy, perhaps a bit awkward and new, but definitely worked and was clearly useful.

Since then, the virtual trend has picked up momentum. In the past couple of years, most talks that I attended at the NIH were streamed simultaneously using Webex. Recently, innovative use of twitter has allowed virtual conferences consisting of twitter feeds. An example of such twitter-based conferences is #BrainTC, which was started in 2017 and is now putting these on annually.

Using the idea started with #BrainTC, Aina Puce spearheaded OHBMEquinoX or OHBMx.  This “conference” took place on the Spring Equinox involving sequential tweets from speakers and presenters from around the world. It started in Asia and Australia and worked its way around with the sun during this first day of spring where the sun was directly above the equator and the entire planet had precisely the same number of hours of sunlight.

Recently, conferences with live streaming talks have been assembled in record time, with little cost overhead, providing a virtual conference experience to audiences numbering in the 1000’s at extremely low or even no registration cost. An outstanding recent example of a successful online conference is neuromatch.io. An insightful blog post summarized logistics of putting this on.

Today, the pandemic has thrown in-person conference planning, at least for the spring and summer of 2020, into chaos. The two societies with which I am most invested, ISMRM and OHBM, have taken different solutions to cancellations in their meetings. ISMRM has chosen to delay their meeting to August. ISMRM’s delay will hopefully be enough time for the current situation to return to normal, however, given the uncertainty of the precise timeline, even this delayed in-person meeting may have to be cancelled. OHBM has chosen to make this year’s conference virtual and are currently scrambling to organize it – aiming for the same start date in June that they had originally planned.

What we will see in June with OHBM will be a spectacular, ambitious, and extremely educational experiment. While we will be getting up to date on the science, most of us will also be having our first foray into a multi-day, highly attended, highly multi-faceted conference that was essentially organized in a couple of months.

Virtual conferences, now catalyzed by COVID-19 constraints, are here to stay. These are the very early days. Formats and capabilities of virtual conferences will be evolving for quite some time. Now is the time to experiment with everything, embracing all the available online technology as it evolves. Below is an incomplete list of the advantages, disadvantages, and challenges of virtual conferences, as I see them. 

What are the advantages of a virtual conference? 

1.         Low meeting cost. There is no overhead cost to rent a venue. Certainly, there are some costs in hosting websites however these are a fraction of the price of renting conference halls.

2.         No travel costs. No travel costs or time and energy are incurred for travel for the attendees and of course a corresponding reduction in carbon emissions from international travel. Virtual conferences allow an increased inclusivity to those who cannot afford to travel to conferences, potentially opening up access to a much more diverse audience – resulting in corresponding benefits to everyone.

3.         Flexibility. Because there is no huge venue cost the meeting can last as long or short as necessary and can take place for 2 hours a day or several hours interspersed throughout the day to accommodate those in other time zones. It can last the normal 4 or 5 days or can be extended for three weeks if necessary. There will likely be many discussions on what the optimal virtual conference timing and spacing should be. We are in the very early days here.

5.         Ease of access to information within the conference. With, hopefully, a well-designed website, session attendance can be obtained with a click of a finger. Poster viewing and discussing, once the logistics are fully worked out, might be efficient and quick. Ideally, the poster “browsing” experience will be preserved. Information on poster topics, speakers, and perhaps a large number of other metrics will be cross referenced and categorized such that it’s easy to plan a detailed schedule. One might even be able to explore a conference long after it is completed, selecting the most viewed talks and posters, something like searching articles using citations as a metric. Viewers might also be able to rate each talk or poster that they see, adding to usable information to search.

6.         Ease of preparation and presentation. You can present from your home and prepare up to the last minute in your home.

7.         Direct archival. It should be trivial to directly archive the talks and posters for future viewing, so that if one doesn’t need real-time interaction or misses the live feed, one can participate in the conference any time in the future at their own convenience. This is a huge advantage that is certainly also possible even for in-person conferences, but has not yet been achieved in a way that quite represents the conference itself. With a virtual conference, there can be a one-to-one conference “snapshot” preservation of precisely all the information contained in the conference as it’s already online and available.

What are the disadvantages of a virtual conference?

1.         Socialization. To me the biggest disadvantage is the lack of directly experiencing all the people. Science is a fundamentally human pursuit. We are all human, and what we communicate by our presence at a conference is much more than the science. It’s us, our story, our lives and context. I’ve made many good friends at conferences and look forward to seeing them and catching up every year. We have a shared sense of community that only comes from discussing something in front of a poster or over a beer or dinner. This is the juice of science. At our core we are all doing what we can towards trying to figure stuff out and creating interesting things. Here we get a chance to share it with others in real time and gauge their reaction and get their feedback in ways so much more meaningful than that provided virtually. One can also look at it in terms of information. There is so much information that is transferred during in-person meetings that simply cannot be conveyed with virtual meetings. These interactions are what makes the conference experience real, enjoyable, and memorable, which all feeds into the science.

2.         Audience experience. Related to 1, is the experience of being part of a massive collective audience. There is nothing like being in a packed auditorium of 2000 people as a leader of the field presents their latest work or their unique perspective. I recall the moment I first saw the first preliminary fMRI results presented by Tom Brady at ISMRM. My jaw dropped and I looked at Eric Wong, sitting next to me, in amazement. After the meeting, there was a group of scientists huddled in a circle outside the doors talking excitedly about the results. FMRI was launched into the world and everyone felt it and shared that experience. These are the experiences that are burnt into people’s memories and which fuel their excitement.

3.         No room for randomness. This could be built into a virtual conference, however at an in-person conference, one of the joys is to experience first-hand, the serendipitous experiences – the bit of randomness. Chance meetings of colleagues or passing by a poster that you didn’t anticipate. This randomness is everywhere at a conference venue perhaps more important than we realize. There may be clever ways to engineer a degree of randomness into a virtual conference experience, however.

4.         No travel. At least to me, one of the perks of science is the travel. Physically traveling to another lab, city, country, or continent is a deeply immersive experience that enriches our lives and perspectives. On a regular basis, while it can turn into a chore at times, is almost always worth it. The education and perspective that a scientist gets about our world community is immense and important.

5.         Distraction. Going to a conference is a commitment. The problem I always have when a conference is in my own city is that as much as I try to fully commit to it, I am only half there. The other half is attending to work, family, and the many other mundane and important things that rise up and demand my attention for no other reason than I am still here in my home and dealing with work. Going to a conference separates one from that life, as much as can be done in this connected world. Staying in a hotel or AirBnB is a mixed bag – sometimes delightful and sometimes uncomfortable. However, once at the conference, you are there. You assess your new surroundings, adapt, and figure out a slew of minor logistics. You immerse yourself in the conference experience, which is, on some level, rejuvenating – a break from the daily grind. A virtual conference is experienced from your home or office and can be filled with the distraction of your regular routine pulling you back. The information might be coming at you but the chances are that you are multi-tasking and interrupted. The engagement level during virtual sessions, and importantly, after the sessions are over, is less. Once you leave the virtual conference you are immediately surrounded by your regular routine. This lack of time away from work and home life I think is also a lost chance to ruminate and discuss new ideas outside of the regular context.

What are the challenges?

1.         Posters. Posters are the bread and butter of “real” conferences. I’m perhaps a bit old school in that I think that electronic posters presented at “real” conferences are absolutely awful. There’s no way to efficiently “scan” electronic posters as you are walking by the lineup of computer screens. You have to know what you’re looking for and commit fully to looking at it. There’s a visceral efficiency and pleasure of walking up and down the aisles of posters, scanning, pausing, and reading enough to get the gist, or stopping for extended times to dig in. Poster sessions are full of randomness and serendipity. We find interesting posters that we were not even looking for. Here we see colleagues and have opportunities to chat and discuss. Getting posters right in virtual conferences will likely be one of the biggest challenges. I might suggest creating a virtual poster hall with full, multi-panel posters as the key element of information. Even the difference between clicking on a title vs scrolling through the actual posters in full multi-panel glory will make a massive difference in the experience. These poster halls, with some thought, can be constructed for the attendee to search and browse. Poster presentations can be live with the attendee being present to give an overview or ask questions. This will require massive parallel streaming but can be done. An alternative is to have the posters up, a pre-recorded 3 minute audio presentation, and then a section for questions and answers – with the poster presenter being present live to answer in text questions that may arise and having the discussion text preserved with the poster for later viewing.

2.         Perspective. Keeping the navigational overhead low and whole meeting perspective high. With large meetings, there is a of course a massive amount of information that is transferred that no one individual can take in. Meetings like SFN, with 30K people, are overwhelming. OHBM and ISMRM, with 3K to 7K people, are also approaching this level. The key to making these meetings useful is creating a means by which the attendee can gain a perspective and develop a strategy for delving in. Simple to follow schedules with enough information but not too much, customized schedule-creation searches based on a wide rage of keywords and flags for overlap are necessary. The room for innovation and flexibility is likely higher at virtual conferences than at in-person conferences, as there are less constraints on temporal overlap. 

3.         Engagement. Fully engaging the listener is always a challenge, with a virtual conference it’s even more so. Sitting at a computer screen and listening to a talk can get tedious quickly. Ways to creatively engage the listener – real time feedback, questions to the audience, etc.. might be useful to try. Also, conveying effectively with clever graphics the size or relative interests of the audience might also be useful in creating this crowd experience.

4.         Socializing. Neuromatch.io included a socializing aspect to their conference. There might be separate rooms of specific scientific themes for free discussion, perhaps led by a moderator. There might also be simply rooms for completely theme-less socializing or discussion about any aspect of the meeting. Nothing will compare to real meetings in this regard, but there are some opportunities to potentially exploit the ease of accessing information about the meeting virtually to be used to enrich these social gatherings.

5.         Randomness. As I mentioned above, randomness and serendipity play a large role in making a meeting successful and worth attending. Defining a schedule and sticking to it is certainly one way of attacking a meeting, but others might want to randomly sample and browse and randomly run into people. It might be possible for this to be done in the meeting scheduling tool but designing opportunities for serendipity in the website experience itself should be given careful thought. One could decide on a time when they view random talks or posters or meet random people based on a range of keywords.

6.         Scalability. It would be useful to have virtual conferences constructed of scalable elements such as poster sessions, keynotes, discussion, proffered talks, that could start to become standardized to increase ease of access and familiarity across conferences of different sizes from 20 to 200,000 as it’s likely that virtual meeting sizes will vary more widely yet will be generally larger than “real” meetings.

7.         Costs vs. Charges? This will be of course determined on its own in a bottom up manner based on regular economic principles, however, in these early days, it’s useful to for meeting organizers to work through a set of principles of what to charge or if to make a profit at all. It is possible that if the web-elements of virtual meetings are open access, many of costs could disappear. However, for regular meetings of established societies there will be always be a need to support the administration to maintain the infrastructure.

Beyond Either-Or:

Once the unique advantages of virtual conferences are realized, I imagine that even as in-person conferences start up again, there will remain a virtual component, allowing a much higher number and wider range of participants. These conferences will perhaps simultaneously offer something to everyone – going well beyond simply keeping talks and posters archived for access – as is the current practice today.

While I have helped organize meetings for almost three decades, I have not yet been part of organizing a virtual meeting, so in this area, I don’t have much experience. I am certain that most thoughts expressed here have been thought through and discussed many times already. I welcome any discussion on points that I might have wrong or aspects I may have missed.

Virtual conferences are certainly going to be popping up at an increasing rate, throwing open a relatively unexplored wide open space for creativity with the new constraints and opportunities of this venue.  I am very much looking forward to seeing them evolve and grow – and helping as best I can in the process.

We Don’t Need no Backprop

Companion post to: “Example Based Hebbian Learning may be sufficient to support Human Intelligence” on Biorxiv.

This dude learned in one example to do a backflip.

With the tremendous success of deep networks trained using backpropagation, it is natural to think that the brain might learn in a similar way. My guess is that backprop is actually much better at producing intelligence than the brain, and that brain learning is supported by much simpler mechanisms. We don’t go from Zero to super smart in hours, even for narrow tasks, as does AlphaZero. We spend most of our first 20 years slowly layering into our brains the distilled intelligence of human history, and now and then we might have a unique new idea. Backprop actually generates new intelligence very efficiently. It can discover and manipulates the huge dimensional manifolds or state spaces that describe games like go, and finds optimal mappings from input to output through these spaces with amazing speed. So what might the brain do if not backprop?

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#CCNeuro asks: “How can we find out how the brain works?”

The organizers of the upcoming conference Cognitive Computational Neuroscience (#CCNeuro) have done a very cool thing ahead of the meeting. They asked their keynote speakers the same set of 5 questions, and posted their responses on the conference blog.

The first of these questions is “How can we find out how the brain works?”. In addition to recommending reading the insightful responses of the speakers, I offer here my own unsolicited suggestion.

A common theme among the responses is the difficulty posed by the complexity of the brain and the extraordinary expanse of scales across which it is organized.

The most direct approach to this challenge may be to focus on the development of recording technologies to measure neural activity that more and more densely span the scales until ultimately the entire set of neural connections and synaptic weights is known. At that point the system would be known but not understood.

In the machine learning world, this condition (known but not understood) is just upon us with AlphaGo and other deep networks. While it has not been proven that AlphaGo works like a brain, it seems close enough that it would be silly not to use as a testbed for any theory that tries to penetrate the complexity of the brain a system that has human level performance in a complex task, is perfectly and noiselessly known, and was designed to learn specifically because we could not make it successful by programming it to execute known algorithms (contrast Watson).

Perhaps the most typical conceptual approach to understanding the brain is based on the idea (hope) that the brain is modular in some fashion, and that models of lower scale objects such as cortical columns may encapsulate their function with sufficiently few parameters that the models can be built up hierarchically and arrive at a global model whose complexity is in some way still humanly understandable, whatever that means.

I think that modularity, or something effectively like modularity is necessary in order to distill understanding from the complexity. However, the ‘modularity’ that must be exploited in understanding the brain will likely need to be at a higher level of abstraction than spatially contiguous structures such as columns, built up into larger structures. The idea of brain networks that can be overlapping is already such an abstraction, but considering the density of long range connections witnessed by the volume of our white matter, the distributed nature of representations, and the intricate coding that occurs at the individual neuron level, it is likely that the concept of overlapping networks will be necessary all the way down to the neuron, and that the brain is like an extremely fine sparse sieve of information flow, with structure at all levels, rather than a finite set of building blocks with countable interactions.

The Wearable Tech + Digital Health Conference at Stanford University

The future of healthcare both small and big. It’s big data, machine learning, and massive amounts of data coming from tiny robust devices or phone apps of individuals. It’s individualized medicine – not only for patients who need care but for healthy individuals. The data will come from devices that will become ever more ubiquitous – stickers on skin, tattoos, clothing, contact lenses, and more.  This conference, organized by Applysci, and held on Feb 7 and 8, 2017 at Stanford University, involved a slate of some of the most creative, ambitious, and successful people in the digital health industry. I was both mesmerized and inspired. 

I decided to venture outside my comfort zone of fMRI and brain imaging conferences to get a glimpse of the future of wearable technology and digital health by attending this conference. The speakers were mostly academics who have started companies related to their particular area of expertise. Others were solidly in industry or government. Some were quite famous and others were just getting started. All were great communicators – many having night jobs as writers. My goal for being here was to see how these innovations could complement fMRI – or vise versa.  Were there new directions to go, strategies to consider, or experiments to try? What were the neural correlates of expanding one’s “umwelt?” – a fascinating concept elegantly described by one of the speakers, David Engleman.   

On a personal level, I just love this stuff. I feel that use of the right data can truly provide insight into so many aspects of an individual’s health, fitness, and overall well-being, and can be used for prediction and classification. There’s so much untapped data that can be measured and understood on an individual level.  

Many talks were focussed on flexible, pliable, wearable, and implantable devices that can measure, among other things, hemodynamics, neuronal activity, sweat content, sweat rate, body heat, solar radiation, body motion, heart rate, heart rate variability, skin conductance, blood pressure, electrocardiogram measures, then communicate this to the user and the cloud – all for analysis, feedback, and diagnosis. Other talks were on the next generation of brain analysis and imaging techniques. Others focussed on brain computer interfaces to allow for wired and wireless prosthetic interfacing. Frankly, the talks at this conference were almost all stunning. The prevailing theme that ran through each talk could be summarized as: In five or so years, not much will happen, but in ten to fifteen years, brace yourselves. The world will change! Technophiles see this future as a huge leap forward – as information will be more accessible and usable – reducing the cost of healthcare and, in some contexts – bypassing clinicians altogether and increasing the well-being of a very large fraction of the population. Others may see a dystopia wrought with the inevitable ethical issues of who can use and control the data.   

Below are abbreviated notes, highlights, and personal thoughts from each of the talks that I attended. I don’t talk about the speakers themselves as they are easily googled – and most are more or less famous. I focus simply on what the highlights were for me. 

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My Wish List for the Ultimate fMRI System

 

The ultimate MRI scanner cake my wife made about 6 years ago to celebrate both the 50th birthday of my colleague Sean Marrett and the installation of our new 7T scanner.

I recently had a meeting where the topic discussed was: “What would we like to see in the ideal cutting edge and future-focussed fMRI/DTI scanner?” While those who use fMRI are used to some progress being made in pulse sequences and scanner hardware, the technological capability exists to create something substantially better than we have now.

In this blog posting, I start out with a brief overview of what 
we currently have now in terms of scanner technology. The second part of this blog is then focussed on what my ideal fMRI system would have. Lastly, the article ends with a summary outline of my wish list – so if you want to get the gist of this blog, scroll to the list at the bottom. Enjoy and enter your comments! Feedback, pushback, and more ideas are welcome! 

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