First Term of my Masters

My bad, I wasn’t expecting such a long post, but believe me, there is a lot to talk about! So here we go!

My first term, out of three is done. Well, not entirely. Just the classes. One assignment was out of the way today, 3 more to submit by mid-January and 1 until the end of January. And of course, 3 exams for this term’s modules in May.

It’s interesting for me to switch now to a different set of 4 modules for my second term. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons the Masters has been so challenging so far. The content for a class, which could easily span an entire academic year, is condensed to 10 weeks, maintaining a high level of complexity in terms of content.

Looking back on the first 2 and a half months of my Masters, I realise my skill set and I have both evolved tremendously. The pressure and the increased pace do make you create the impossible, possible. It’s a tough road towards the end result, but the feeling you get when you grasp the meaning of the concepts is priceless.

Although the MSc is entitled Web Science and Big Data Analytics, it has a high focus on machine learning. We are able to customise it anyway we like and by this I mean select whichever modules we like from all Computer Science MSc modules available.

My 2 core modules this term were Statistical NLP and Complex Networks. As elective, I chose Computer Vision and Supervised Learning. I made an ambitious choice, as I knew these were 2 tough modules, where expectations are high and the content is advanced. But I couldn’t say no to the challenge. The syllabus for both was incredibly interesting and indeed they turned out to be an excellent choice.

First off, in Computer Vision, we’ve covered the contents of Simon Prince’s amazing book Computer Vision : Models, Learning and Inference. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in the subject. We learnt about 2D and 3D image geometry, object identification, tracking, face recognition, texture synthesis, all under probabilistic models. We also covered graphical models, random forests, homographies and particle filters. As William Freeman (MIT) put it, “computer vision and machine learning have gotten married and this book is their child”.

I was really really surprised when I received the grades for our first coursework submission and I found out I got an A+, equivalent to above 90%. As I mentioned, I had times when I thought I would never be able to develop what I was required, but pushing myself not to give up made me create the impossible, possible. And it feels amazing!

In Supervised Learning we had 3 different lecturers throughout the term, including John Shawe-Taylor, renowned for his book on Kernel Methods for Pattern Analysis. This module is equally demanding and has a strong focus on kernel methods. From our 2nd teaching week we covered kernels and regularisation, then moved on to online learning in our 3rd week. The module then introduced us to SVMs, Gaussian Processes, decision trees and ensemble learning, multitask learning, learning theory and sparsity methods. All with lots and lots and lots of maths.

Statistical Natural Language Processing was really really fun. It’s assessment is divided into 3 main assignments, the only class with no exam. The last one will be a group coursework and we’ll be required to use deep learning, with recurrent neural nets (yuppy yey!). We covered language models, with the traditional n-grams and we looked at machine translation, tagging and information extraction, such as entity recognition. I discovered there are some really really interesting things to do in natural language processing, now that deep learning algorithms enable a more accurate recognition of complex patterns. Languages have different levels of complexity. And training a model to learn a certain language really well is achievable. But there are so many aspects that make this task so difficult. Jargon, word ordering, neologisms, tricky meanings, all need to be accounted for. A really cool project UCL’s NLP research group received funding for, is the automated fact-checking project, sponsored by Google. They help avoid the spread of fake news via social media or search engines.

Last, but not least, in Complex Networks, we studied graph theory, random network models, as well as various ways in which networks’ properties can be analysed and help make informed predictions and decisions. Concepts such as the small-world property or the 6 degrees of separation, power laws and scale free networks have been covered throughout the term. A very important point made in this class was that links in networks carry meaningful information from the real world. For example, a trade is made between 2 countries (nodes in a network), due to an agreement, involving political, social, macro-economical reasons and so on. New links form with a reason, old links are broken with a reason. Its amazing how much predictable power network studies can have. The reason why this links really well with our Masters is because the web gave birth to a whole range of discoveries in the field of network science, due to its unprecedented complexity and scale. As Barabas notes in his book, “the Web is the largest network humanity has ever built. It exceeds in size even the human brain (N ≈ 1011 neurons)”. It is a fascinating network to study and in the past 2 decades it produced some of the best papers in network science.

I’ll finish off here, as this simply exceeds what I had in mind when I started writing. But hopefully this will prove helpful for anyone interested in pursuing an MSc in the future at UCL. I am happy to share more details of my experience and answer any other questions you might have about particular modules.

In term two, I am very eager to start studying Information Retrieval & Data Mining, Web Economics, Interaction Design and Advanced Topics in Machine Learning, taught by Google DeepMind’s researchers.

 


Masters Offer from UCL

I just cannot emphasise how happy (and relieved) I was yesterday when I received the offer letter from UCL. People that are close to me know how much I’ve wanted this. I spotted this Masters degree since I was in my first year of University.

I emailed the admissions office and inquired if the course that I am on and all the modules I take would satisfy their entry requirements. They promptly replied to me and the programme’s manager said I should take on a course that uses Java/Python/C#, do an Artificial Intelligence one and some maths (statistics, probabilities).

Unfortunately, my degree (Web Technologies) did not include any of these modules. As a result, in my second year I decided to take an extra module, the one that the first year Computer Science students were taking for Software Design and Development. I was introduced to Java through this course. The lectures and practicals were at the same time with my Visual Design class. So I had to manage to attend both in equal measure. As an extra module, I wasn’t required to do the coursework and my attendance was not monitored. However, there’s no better way to learn something than by doing the coursework, so I lucky to have a very understanding lecturer and got an A for both projects.

Before going into my final year, my personal tutor help me transfer from my Web Technologies degree to an individualised one, where I could select the modules that the final year Computer Science students were taking, provided I met the pre-requisites. Apart from the dissertation project, I chose to do one module of my old Web Tech course – Advanced Front-end Development – and then select useful modules to meet the 120 credits total. I selected Computational Mathematics, Distributed Client Server Systems and Artificial Intelligence. Best decision ever! I am extremely happy with what I am learning right now and the challenging assignments I work on.

My masters at UCL will be in Web Science and Big Data Analysis and covers 4 core modules, plus 4 optional ones and a dissertation project. As part of the core modules I’ll do:

  • Information retrieval and data mining
  • Complex networks and web
  • Web economics
  • Statistical natural language processing

I haven’t decided yet on the optional ones, but I’ll do a bit of research on them first and see how I’d like to personalise my Masters.

Can’t wait for it to start! I am both happy, nervous and scared. I have heard it is a challenging degree so I am eager to see how I’ll manage it. I am a hopeless optimist anyway so I always think things will turn out well! I’ll keep you posted anyway on how it will be.