The health of COLT (Conference on Learning Theory or Computational Learning Theory depending on who you ask) has been questioned over the last few years. Low points for the conference occurred when EuroCOLT merged with COLT in 2001, and the attendance at the 2002 Sydney COLT fell to a new low. This occurred in the general context of machine learning conferences rising in both number and size over the last decade.
Any discussion of why COLT has had difficulties is inherently controversial as is any story about well-intentioned people making the wrong decisions. Nevertheless, this may be worth discussing in the hope of avoiding problems in the future and general understanding. In any such discussion there is a strong tendency to identify with a conference/community in a patriotic manner that is detrimental to thinking. Keep in mind that conferences exist to further research.
My understanding (I wasn’t around) is that COLT started as a subcommunity of the computer science theory community. This implies several things:
- There was a basic tension facing authors: Do you submit to COLT or to FOCS or STOC which are the “big” theory conferences?
- The research programs in COLT were motivated by theoretical concerns (rather than, say, practical experience). This includes motivations like understanding the combinatorics of some models of learning and the relationship with crypto.
This worked well in the beginning when new research programs were being defined and new learning models were under investigation. What went wrong from there is less clear.
- Perhaps the community shifted focus from thinking about new learning models to simply trying to find solutions in older models, and this went stale.
- Perhaps some critical motivations were left out. Many of the learning models under investigation at COLT strike empirically motivated people as implausibly useful.
- Perhaps the conference/community was not inviting enough to new forms of learning theory. Many pieces of learning theory have not appeared at COLT over the last 20 years.
These concerns have been addressed since the low point of COLT, but the long term health is still questionable: ICML has been accepting learning theory with plausible empirical motivations and a mathematical learning theory conference has appeared so there are several choices of venue available to authors.
The good news is that this year’s COLT appeared healthy. The topics covered by the program were diverse and often interesting. Several of the papers seem quite relevant to the practice of machine learning. Perhaps an even better measure is that there were many younger people in attendance.