One of the components I am most excited about is a sequence of **invited plenary short talks** where we will get a chance to hear about some exciting recent theoretical works from a variety of areas from areas as disparate as theoretical physics and network programming languages, and many others in between.

As the chair of the committee to select these talks, I was very fortunate for the work of the committee members as well as the many nominations we received from leading researchers across a great many fields. I am also grateful to all the speakers that agreed to come despite the fact that in most cases STOC is not their “home conference”. The end result is a collection of talks that is sure to contain interesting and new content for every theoretical computer scientist, and I encourage everyone who can make it to register to the conference and come to Montreal in June.

Here is some information about the talks (in the order of scheduling).

The short descriptions of the talks below are mine and not the authors’: more formal and informative (and maybe even correct ) abstracts will be posted closer to the event.

**Alon Orlitsky****:** *Competitive Distribution Estimation: Why is Good-Turing Good*

Estimating a distribution from samples is one of the most basic questions in information theory and data analysis, going at least far back to Pearson’s work in the 1800’s. In Alon’s wonderful NIPS 2015 paper with Ananda Theertha Suresh (which also won the NIPS best paper award) they showed that a somewhat mysterious but simple estimator is nearly-optimal in the sense of providing good competitive guarantees even against ideal offline estimators that have more information.

**John Preskill**: *Is spacetime a quantum error-correcting code?*

20th century physics’ quest for a “theory of everything” had encountered a “slight hitch” in that the two most successful theories: general relativity and quantum mechanics, are inconsistent with one another. Perhaps the most promising approach towards reconciling this mismatch is a 20 years old conjectured isomorphism between two physical theories, known as the “AdS/CFT correspondence“. A great many open questions relating to this approach remain; over the past several years, we have learned that quantum information science might shed light on these fundamental questions. John will discuss some of the most exciting developments in this direction, and in particular will present his recent Journal of High Energy Physics paper with Pastawski, Yoshida, and Harlow which connects quantum gravity (and black holes in particular), to issues in quantum information theory and specifically to quantum error correcting codes.

**Tim Roughgarden****:** *Why Prices Need Algorithms*

In recent years we have seen many results showing computational hardness of computing equilibria. But in Tim’s EC 2015 paper with Inbal Talgam-Cohen (which won the best student paper award) they showed a surprising connection between computational complexity and the question whether an equilibrium *exists at all*. It is the latter type of question that is often of most interest to economists, and the paper also gives some “barrier results” to resolving open questions in economics.

**Wim Martens**: *Optimizing Tree Pattern Queries: Why Cutting Is Not Enough*

T*ree patterns *are a natural (and practically used) formalism for queries about tree-shaped data such as XML documents. Wim will talk about some new insights on these patterns. It is rare that the counterexample for a 15-year old conjecture is small enough to print on a T shirt, but in Wim’s PODS 2016 paper with Czerwinski, Niewerth, and Parys (which was presented in the awards session and also chosen as SIGMOD highlight) they were able to do just that. (Wim did not tell me if the shirts would be available for sale in the conference..)

**Atri Rudra****:** *Answering FAQs in CSPs, Probabilistic Graphical Models, Databases, Logic and Matrix operations*

The Functional Aggregate Query (FAQ) problem generalizes many tasks studied in a variety of communities including solving constraint-satisfaction problems, evaluating database queries, and problems arising in probabilistic graphical models, coding theory, matrix chain computation, and the discrete Fourier transform. In Atri’s PODS 2016 paper with Abo Khamis and Ngo (which won the best paper award and was selected as SIGMOD highlight), they unified and recovered many old results in these areas, and also obtained several new ones.

**Vasilis Syrgkanis**: *Fast convergence of learning in games*

Vasilis will talk on some recent works on the interface of learning theory and game theory. Specifically, he will discuss how natural learning algorithms converge much faster than expected (e.g., at a rate of instead of the classical ) to the optimum of various games. This is based on his NIPS 2015 paper with Agarwal, Luo, and Schapire, which won the best paper award.

**Chris Umans****:** *On cap sets and the group-theoretic approach to matrix multiplication*

Chris will discuss the recent breakthroughs on the “cap set problem” and how they led to surprising insights on potential matrix-multiplication algorithms. Based on this Discrete Analysis paper with Blasiak, Church, Cohn, Grochow, Naslund, and Sawin.

**Christopher Ré****:** *Ensuring Rapid Mixing and Low Bias for Asynchronous Gibbs Sampling*

Gibbs sampling is one of the most natural Markov Chains arising in many practical and theoretical contexts, but practically running the algorithm is very expensive. The Hogwild! Framework of Chris and co authors is a way to run such algorithms in parallel without locks but it’s unclear that the output distribution is still correct. In Chris’s ICML 2016 paper with De Sa and Olukotun (which won the best paper award) they gave the first theoretical analysis of this algorithm.

**Nate Foster****:** *The Next 700 Network Programming Languages*

I never expected to see Kleene Algebra, straight from the heart of Theory B, used for practical packet processing in routers, but this is exactly what was done by this highly influential POPL 2014 paper of Nate with Anderson, Guha, Jeannin, Kozen, Schlesinger, and Walker.

**Mohsen Ghaffari****:** *An Improved Distributed Algorithm for Maximal Independent Set*

*Maximal Independent Set* is the “crown jewel of distributed symmetry breaking problems“ to use the words from the 2016 Dijkstra prize citation for the works showing an time distributed algorithm. In Mohsen’s SODA 2016 paper (which won the best paper award) he improved on those works to give a local algorithm where each vertex will finish the computation in time that is . Moreover, in graphs with degree , all nodes will terminate faster than the prior algorithms, in particular almost matching the known lower bound.

**Valeria Nikolaenko****:** * Practical post-quantum key agreement from generic lattices*

With increasing progress in quantum computing, both the NSA and commercial companies are getting increasingly nervous about the security of RSA, Diffie-Hellman, and Elliptic Curve Crypto. Unfortunately, lattice-based crypto, which is the main candidate for “quantum resistant” public key encryption, was traditionally not efficient enough to be used in real world web security. This has been changing with recent works. In particular in Valeria’s ACM CCS 2016 paper with Bos et al they gave a practical scheme based on *standard* computational assumptions on lattices. This is a follow up to the New Hope cryptosystem which is currently implemented in Chrome canary.

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My main issue with TeX is that, at its heart, it is a programming language. A document is like a program, and it either compiles or doesn’t. This is really annoying when working on large projects, especially towards a deadline when multiple people are editing the document at the same time.

The issue is that a document is not like a program: if I made a typo in line 15, that’s not an excuse not to show me the rest of the document. In that sense, I much prefer markdown, as it will always produce *some* output, even if I made some formatting errors. Even the dreaded Microsoft Word will not refuse to produce a document just because I forgot to match a curly brace. (Not that I’d ever use Word over LaTeX!)

In fact, in this day and age, maybe it’s time for programs to behave more like documents rather than the other way around. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could always run a program, and instead of halting at the first sign of inconsistency, the interpreter would just try to guess the most reasonable way to continue with the execution? After all, with enough data one could imagine that it could guess correctly much of the time.

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In this talk, Arkani-Hamed describes the quest for finding scientific theories in much the same terms as solving an optimization problem, where the solution is easy-to-verify (or “inevitable”, in his words) once you see it, but the problem is that you might get stuck in a local optimum:

The classical picture of the world is the top of a local mountain in the space of ideas. And you go up to the top and it looks amazing up there and absolutely incredible. And you learn that there is a taller mountain out there. Find it, Mount Quantum…. they’re not smoothly connected … you’ve got to make a jump to go from classical to quantum … This also tells you why we have such major challenges in trying to extend our understanding of physics. We don’t have these knobs, and little wheels, and twiddles that we can turn. We have to learn how to make these jumps. And it is a tall order. And that’s why things are difficult

But what actually caught my attention in this talk is his description that part of what enabled progress beyond Newtonian mechanics was a different, dual, way to look at classical physics. That is, instead of the Newtonian picture of an evolution of particles according to clockwork rules, we think that

The particle takes every path it could between A and B, every possible one. And then imagine that it just sort of sniffs them all out; and looks around; and says, I’m going to take the one that makes the following quantity as small as possible.

I know almost no physics and a limited amount of math, but this seems to me to be an instance of moving to an **external**, as opposed to **internal **definition, in the sense described by Tao. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!) As Arkani-Hamed describes, a hugely important paper of Emmy Noether showed how this viewpoint immediately implies the conservation laws and shows that this second viewpoint, in his words, is

simple, and deep, and will always be the right way of thinking about these things.

Since determinism is not “hardwired” into this second viewpoint, it is much easier to generalize it to incorporate quantum mechanics.

This talk got me thinking about whether we can find an “external” definition for **computation**. That is, our usual notion of computation via Turing Machines or circuits involves a “clockwork” like view of an evolving state via composition of some basic steps. Perhaps one of the reasons we can’t make progress on lower bounds is that we don’t have a more “global” or “external” definition that would somehow capture the property that a function F is “easy” without giving an explicit way to compute it. Alas, there is a good reason that we lack such a definition. The *natural proofs* barrier tell us that any property that is efficiently computable from the truth table and contains all the “easy” functions (which are an exponentially small fraction of all functions) must contain many many other functions (in fact more than 99.99% of all functions) . It is sometimes suggested that the way to bypass this barrier is to avoid the “largeness” condition, as for example even a property that contains all functions except a single function G would be useful to prove a lower bound for G if we can prove that it contains all easy functions. However, I think that to obtain a true understanding of computation, and not just a lower bound for a single function, we will need to find completely new types of nonconstructive arguments.

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President Trump had just signed a new executive order revising the prior ban on visitors from seven (now six) muslim-majority countries. It is fundamentally the same, imposing a blanket 90-day ban on entry of people from six countries, with the conditions for lifting the ban depending on the cooperation of these countries’ governments.

One good analysis of the original order called it “malevolence tempered by incompetence”, and indeed the fact that it was incompetently drafted is the main reason why the original ban did not survive court challenges. The new version has obviously been crafted with more input from competent people but it does not change anything about the points we wrote before.

Every country has a duty to protect its citizens and we have never advocated “open borders”. Indeed, as many people who visited or immigrated to the U.S. know, the visa process is already very arduous, and involves extensive vetting. A blanket policy does not make the U.S. safer. In fact, as opposed to individual vetting, it actually **removes** an element of unpredictability for any group that is planning to carry out a terror attack in the U.S. Moreover this policy (whose first, hastily drafted version was crafted without much input from the intelligence community), is not the result of a careful balancing of the risks and benefits but rather an attempt to fulfill an obviously unconstitutional campaign promise for a “muslim ban” while tailoring it to try to pass it through the courts.

This ban hurts the U.S. and science. Much of progress in science during the 20th century can be attributed to the U.S.’s role in becoming a central hub for scientists, welcoming scientists even from countries that it was in conflict with (including 1930’s Germany and cold-war Soviet Union, and more recently, Iran). This has benefited all the world, but in particular the U.S., which during the 20th century became the world leader in science and technology as a result. Science is not a zero-sum game, and collaborations and interactions are better for all of us. We continue to strenuously object to this ban, and call on all scientists to do the same.

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**Update (1/28):** If you are an academic that opposes this action, please consider signing the following open letter.

Today leaked drafts of planned executive actions showed that president Trump apparently intends to issue an order suspending (and possibly permanently banning) entry to the U.S. of citizens of seven countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. As Scott Aaronson points out, one consequence of this is that students from these countries would not be able to study or do research in U.S. universities.

The U.S. has mostly known to separate its treatment of foreign governments from its treatment of their citizens, whether it is Cubans, Russians, or other cases. Based on the past records, the danger of terrorism by lawful visitors to the U.S. from the seven countries above is slim to none. But over the years, visitors and immigrants from these countries did **contribute immensely to the U.S. society, economy, and the scientific world at large**.

We personally have collaborated and built on the scientific works of colleagues from these countries. In particular, both of us are originally from Israel, but have collaborated with scientists from Iran who knew that the issues between the two governments should not stop scientific cooperation.

This new proposed policy is not just misguided, but also directly contradicts the interests of the U.S., and the advancement of science. We call on all our fellow scientists to express their strong disagreement with it, and their solidarity and gratitude for the contributions of visiting and immigrant scientists, without which the U.S., and the state of human knowledge, would not have been the same.

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Laci Babai has posted an update on his graph isomorphism algorithm. While preparing a Bourbaki talk on the work Harald Helfgott found an error in the original running time analysis of one of the subroutines. Laci fixed the error but with running time that is quantitatively weaker than originally stated, namely time (hiding poly log log factors). Harald has verified that the modified version is correct.

This is a large quantitative difference, but I think makes very little actual difference for the (great) significance of this paper. It is tempting to judge theoretical computer science papers by the “headline result”, and hence be more impressed with an algorithm that improves time to than, say, to . However, this is almost always the wrong metric to use.

Improving quantitative parameters such as running time or approximation factor is very useful as intermediate challenge problems that force us to create new ideas, but ultimately the important contribution of a theoretical work is the ideas it introduces and not the actual numbers. In the context of algorithmic result, for me the best way to understand what a bound such as says about the inherent complexity of the problem is whether you meet it **“on the way up”** or **“on the way down”**.

Often, if you have a *hardness result* that (for example based on the exponential time hypothesis) shows that some problem (e.g., shortest codeword) cannot be solved faster than then you could expect that eventually this hardness would improve further and the true complexity of the problem is for some (maybe even ). That is, when you meet such a bound “on your way up”, it sometimes makes sense to treat as a function that is “almost polynomial”.

On the other hand, if you meet this bound “on your way down” in an *algorithmic result*, such as in this case, or in cases where for example you improve an algorithm to an then one expects further improvements and so in that context it sometimes makes sense to treat as “almost polylogarithmic”.

Of course it could be that for some problems this kind of bound *is* actually their inherent complexity and not simply the temporary state of our knowledge. Understanding whether and how “unnatural” complexity bounds can arise for natural problems is a very interesting problem in its own right.

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NAFTA’s effect on U.S. employment has probably been something between a modest gain to a loss of several hundred thousand U.S. jobs. The effect of trade with China has probably been greater, resulting in a loss of perhaps a million or more jobs. But both of these effects are likely to be much smaller than the result of the U.S.’s completely unregulated trade with a different country, one that has no labor protections and whose workers work very long hours for very low wages.

I am talking about the “Nation of AI”. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in the U.S. there are 3.85 million drivers (of trucks, buses, taxis, etc..), 3.5 million cashiers, 2.6 million customer service representatives, and many other people working in jobs that could be automated in the near future. It is sometimes said that “routine” jobs are the ones most at risk, but perhaps a better term for this is *quantifiable *jobs. If your job consists of performing well-defined tasks that have a clear criteria of success (like “getting from point A to point B”) then it is at risk of first being “Uberized” (or “M-Turk’ed”) and then automated. After all, optimizing well defined objectives is what computers do best.

Of course, like other trade deals and technological advances in the past, it could well be that the the eventual net effect of artificial intelligence on human employment is zero or even positive. But it will undoubtedly involve shifting of jobs, and, especially if it happens on a short time scale, many people whose jobs are eliminated would be unable to acquire the skills for obtaining the jobs that are created.

Understanding how to deal with this (arguably more realistic) type of “AI risk” is a grand challenge on the interface of Economics and Computer Science, as well as many other areas. Like other questions of incentives, privacy, fairness, and others, I believe theoretical computer science can and should play some role in addressing this challenge.

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In particular in 2017-2018, Harvard’s center for mathematical sciences and applications will be hosting a special year on combinatorics and complexity, organized by Noga Alon, me, Jacob Fox, Madhu Sudan, Salil Vadhan, and Leslie Valiant. I am quite excited about the workshops and events we have planned, so it should be a great time to be in the area.

The two sister sum-of-squares seminars at Cambridge and Princeton have been maintaining a fairly extensive set of online lecture notes (with links to videos of Cambridge lectures added as we go along). While these notes are still a work in progress, I am already quite happy with how they turned out (but would be grateful for any feedback to help make them more accessible).

As I mentioned before, if you want to see the live version, David Steurer and I are going to teach a Sum of Squares Winter Course in UC San Diego in **January 4-7, 2017**. Should be fun!!

Finally, please send in your suggestions for papers to invite for Theory Fest presentations by **December 12, 2016.** I’ve been having some issues with the dedicated email I setup for this, so if you sent in a suggestion and didn’t get a response, please send me a copy at my personal email as well.

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A priori predicting the result of the election seems like an unglamorous and straighforward exercise: you ask people for their opinions whether they prefer candidate or candidate , and you predict that the result will be the majority opinion, with probability that is about . This means that if two candidates are at least 2 percent apart, then you should get extremely high confidence if you ask some constant factor times 2,500 people.

Yet somehow, different analysts looking at the polls come up with very different numbers for the probability that Trump will win. As of today 538 says it is 34.2%, NY-times’ Upshot says it is 14%, David Rotchschild’s predictwise says it is 16%, and Sam Wang’s PEC says it is 2%.

There are several reasons for this discrepancy, including the fact that the U.S. election is not won based on popular vote (though they almost always agree), that we need to estimate the fraction among actual voters as opposed to the general population, that polls could have systematic errors, and of course there is genuine uncertainty in the sense that some people might change their minds.

But at least one of the reasons seems to come up from a problem that TCS folks are familiar with, and arises in the context of rounding algorithms for convex optimization, which is to understand *higher level correlations*. For example, essentially all these predictors think that there are a few states such Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, and North Carolina that have reasonable chance of going either way, but that Trump cannot afford to lose even one of them. Clearly these are not perfectly independent nor perfectly correlated events, but understanding the correlations between them seems hard, and appears to account for much of the huge discrepancy between the topline predictions.

Even if you do understand the correlations, using them to come up with predictions can be a computationally hard task. The typical way these people do it is to come up with an **efficiently samplable distribution** that matches the given marginals and correlations, and then run many simulations on this distribution to predict the outcome.

But coming up with efficiently sampleable distributions that match even simple pairwise or three-wise correlations is a **computationally hard** task. (For constrained pairwise moments this is related to MAX-CUT while for unconstrained higher moments this is related to SAT, it is possible to do this for unconstrained pairwise moments using the quadratic sampling lemma, also known as Gaussian copula, which is related to the hyperplane rounding technique of Geomans and Williamson.) For an empirical demonstration, see this blog post of David Rothschild for how it is problematic to find a distribution that matches both the statewise and topline marginals of prediction markets (despite a fact that such a distribution should exist under the efficient market hypothesis). The fact that the matching moments problem is hard in general means that people use different heuristics to achieve this, and I don’t know if they have a good understanding of how the choice of heuristic affects the quality of prediction.

In our sum of squares lecture notes we discuss (with a javascript-powered figure!) this issue with respect to the **clique problem**. Given a graph with a hidden clique , if we are computationally bounded and want to make predictions on events such as we cannot find an efficiently sampleable distribution over sets that would not make non-sensical predictions such as or for some non neighbors . The sos algorithm (and other convex optimization frameworks) can be thought of as a way to come up with predictions without a matching efficiently sampleable distribution, by generalizing to the notion of pseudo-distribution.

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