The ultimate guide to AI safety research hackathons

The ultimate guide to AI safety research hackathons

Research hackathons are an amazing way to dive into a new field, collaborate with passionate people, and create impactful projects in just a short weekend. Having organized and participated in several AI safety hackathons with Apart Research, here are some key tips to help you get the most out of your hackathon experience:

June 13, 2024

Before the Hackathon

1) Take a deep dive into the hackathon topic: Start by reviewing the materials provided under the Resources tab on hackathon website, which is typically updated about a week ahead of the event. But don't stop there—supplement this information with additional research to deepen your knowledge. This will help you hit the ground running. 

Here are some research resources you may find useful: 

2) Brainstorm project ideas: Come in with some potential project ideas based on the hackathon's theme. Having a direction in mind will help you find teammates and get started quickly. 

Here is a good exercise: create a google document or a notion page, spend 10 minutes writing down any and every spark of an idea you could think of. Then, assess the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas, plus how excited you are to explore them. After this, share your ideas on the Alignment Jam Discord, or during the brainstorming sessions hosted there the week before the hackathon starts. 

In this way, you would be to discuss your project ideas and see what everyone else is up to. You’d be surprised how discussion and collaboration can refine raw ideas into feasible, impactful projects.

For your inspiration, here are a number of lists of lists of AI safety ideas. Some of these might be a bit outdated, or of much bigger scope than a weekend hackathon project. However, do attempt to tackle a problem or a subproblem if it seems especially interesting to you!

3) Get plenty of rest: Make sure you're well-rested before the event. Hackathons can be intense, so starting off energized will help you stay productive.

During the Hackathon

1) Actively participate in the kickoff: The kickoff isn't just formalities—it's your runway. Introduce yourself in the Discord server with your background, interests, and project ideas. This will make potential collaborators much more likely to reach out to you.

Introduce yourself in the Discord with your background, interests, and project ideas. This would make potential collaborators much more likely to reach out to you. On the other hand, DM people who have introduced or posted their ideas if you would like to work with them!

2) Scope your project realistically: It's tempting to dream big, but focus on what you can feasibly accomplish in a weekend. 

Here are some questions you might want to consider:

  • Plan out your project
    • Out of all your favorite ideas, choose the best one. It might be tempting to execute many ideas at once, but usually it is better to carry out one idea really well compared to several mediocre executions.
    • If your hackathon project goes really well, what would it look like? What hypotheses do you have? What experiments should be run to test them? What results do you expect?   
    • Break your project down into key milestones. How much time will you spend into brainstorming, researching, experimenting, and writing up the results? Set up deadlines for each of these phases (or do everything in parallel, that’s fine too).
  • Meta-planning
    • How much time would you be able to allocate during the weekend? What about your teammates?
    • How does your time availability match with other teammates and hackathon events (timezones)?If you have a team, create a group chat and share your availability schedule there.
    • Have regular checkpoints. Every few hours or so (depending on you), check whether your project is on schedule and still about the same research idea. You are welcome to switch research topics, but beware getting into a rabbit hole and getting lost. 
    • A helpful checkup point can be a group call. Make sure everyone else is also on the same pace and knows what concrete steps to take next. I find making a todo checklist at the end of group calls helpful.

3) Leverage the resources provided: Take advantage of keynote talks, technical workshops, and expert help available on Discord. Don't hesitate to ask questions, every interaction is a chance to learn more. 

Most importantly, seek feedback! Feedback from other people is important to make sure you are on the right track, and not missing any crucial resources or experiments. For this, you could either join the office hours hosted on Discord, or just drop a request in the chat.

4) Take breaks and rest when needed: While it's an intense weekend, don’t neglect your well-being. Make sure to take regular breaks, have nutritious meals, and even quick naps can rejuvenate your creativity and stamina. A refreshed mind is a productive one. 

5) Aim to learn, not just win: While prizes are exciting, the real value is in the skills and connections you build. Focus on learning and don't stress about having the "perfect" project.

What’s more, you would always be able to continue working on the project after the hackathon. For example, one of my previous hackathon projects in model evaluations is currently undergoing further research at the Apart Lab Fellowship.

After the Hackathon

1) Share your work: Consider publishing the write-up of your project to share what you learned and get feedback. Platforms like the Alignment Forum and other AI safety communities are great for sharing your work. Sharing your project with other people is useful to gain insights, explore promising research avenues, and find potential collaborators.

2) Continue your project: If you feel like your project has more potential, consider developing it further! Some projects started in Apart hackathons have led to well received publications in top venues like NeurIPS and research forums like LessWrong. 

Some of these have been published as part of the Apart Lab fellowship, where you're invited to take part in a 3-6 month research accelerator in a collaborative atmosphere inspired by your hackathon participation. Our aim is to help you with research management, assistance, and senior research mentorship to lead impactful papers published in top venues.

You should also consider applying to some of these research fellowships to hone your skills and continue working on your project:

You could also request funding for any expenses your project requires like compute, software, or compensation for research time.

3) Stay connected with your team: You accomplished a lot together in a short time, stay in touch with each other through platforms like LinkedIn or Discord. If your team had good chemistry during the hackathon, consider inviting them to continue the project with you, or teaming up for the next hackathon.

4) Explore next steps: Congratulations on your progress! Look into fellowship programs, further educational opportunities, and ways you can take your new skills and apply them to other projects and your career.


Other resources:

Most importantly, seek feedback! Feedback from others is crucial to ensure you are on the right track and not missing any essential resources or experiments.

Weekend research hackathons are incredible opportunities for focused learning, collaboration, and exploring new domains like AI alignment. By coming in prepared, focus on shipping, leveraging the resources and support provided, and continuing your learning journey afterwards, you can get a ton of value out of the experience. Get hacking!