What made the FRA workshop structure successful?

events
Authors

Elena Di Lavore

Mario Román

Published

2023-02-22

Abstract

The Topos Institute recently hosted “Finding the Right Abstractions for Healthy Systems”, with 24 researchers, mainly from the applied category theory and AI safety communities. This is a post trying to understand what made it successful and some ideas for similar events.

The Topos Institute recently hosted “Finding the Right Abstractions for Healthy Systems”, with 24 researchers, mainly from the applied category theory and AI safety communities. This is a post trying to understand what made it successful and some ideas for similar events.

  1. Ask the experts. Duncan Sabien moderated and directed the workshop. Caleb Rak from Canopy Retreats organized all the logistics. We would like to thank them both, and we believe they made the workshop much better.

    As a more general principle, it seems that there is an art to organizing workshops that is usually neglected. Having experts taking care of this enhances the whole experience and any workshop that can afford this opportunity will probably benefit. The rest of the advice we can extract is conditional on this first point.

  2. No distractions. We probably underestimate how small things can tax your mind during a research retreat. Having well-managed logistics (venue, schedule, markers and whiteboards, sleep, covid testing, food…) minimizes the possibility of minor inconveniences disrupting work. Participants’ attention is a valuable resource; this just helps using it properly.

  3. Direct the research. Extracting the most out of participants does also include the same care at the research level. We had some meta-discussion about how the research was to be organized; and some points seem to be good general principles.

    Research works best with clear goals, clear communication protocols, efficient use of the time, carefully curating and deciding what research directions to pursue, and support for a collaborative environment. Sitting in assembly to discuss research directions every day helps keep the group working as a whole.

  4. And reassess. Research is an exploration; changing direction is part of it. Math and category theory are very good at keeping claims accountable: something is either an algebra for your operad or it is not; and you may have to change your position based on this. However, doing this is not enough. It was great to share goals with others to avoid getting lost in rabbit holes and remain open to new ideas. Participants were experts in domains adjacent to the main goal of the workshop: it was invaluable to exchange ideas in well-organized group sessions and talks.

Research seminars and workshops traditionally follow the same general standard structure; but it is actually difficult to compare what makes them work if each one faces different constraints (from funding to scope). Hopefully, starting a discussion about what makes them work may help us improve the ways in which we carry collaborative research.