The MIT Categories Seminar is an informal teaching seminar in category theory and its applications, with the occasional research talk. We (usually) meet each Thursday, 4.30pm to 5.30pm in MIT 2-255, and go for coffee in 2-290 after. Some videos available here.
Please email Brendan Fong (bfo (at) mit.edu) if you'd like to be on the mailing list.
October 17 : John Burnham
October 24 : Alex Lew
Probabilistic modeling and inference are central tools in multiple fields, including artificial intelligence, statistics, and robotics, but can be tricky for practitioners to apply correctly. To make these techniques more accessible, probabilistic programming languages give users a formal language for expressing probabilistic models, and automate tedious and error-prone aspects of implementing Bayesian inference algorithms. But how can we think formally about what these tools are doing, and whether their inference engines are implemented correctly? And when the default inference algorithms don’t converge quickly enough, how can users tailor inference to the problem at hand without invalidating correctness guarantees?
In this talk, I’ll introduce the core ideas behind probabilistic programming languages and motivate the need for a formal approach to understanding their semantics. I’ll present a brief sketch of the recently introduced category of quasi-Borel spaces , which has been used to validate the correctness of several general-purpose inference algorithms for probabilistic programs . Finally, I’ll present a new extension to that work that allows programmers to customize the behavior of these inference algorithms on a per-model basis in a sound-by-construction manner, ensuring that the resulting inference algorithms are still correct.
 Chris Heunen, Ohad Kammar, Sam Staton and Hongseok Yang, A convenient cateogry for higher-order probability theory, Logic in Computer Science 2017.
 Ścibior, Adam, et al. "Denotational validation of higher-order Bayesian inference." Proceedings of the ACM on Programming Languages 2.POPL (2017): 60.
** No seminars October 31--November 14 **
December 5 : Tai-Danae Bradley (CUNY)
February 15 : Brendan Fong
An overview of Coecke, Sadrzadeh, and Clark's Mathematical foundations for a compositional distributional model of meaning.
February 22 : David Spivak
Fuzzy simplicial sets I.
March 1 : David Spivak
Fuzzy simplicial sets II.
March 8 : Brendan Fong
An overview of McInnes and Healy's UMAP: Uniform manifold approximation and projection for dimension reduction.
March 29 : Brendan Fong
The equivalence of hypergraph categories and lax monoidal functors Cospan(FinSet) --> Set.
April 5 : Enrique Boroquez (UNAM)
April 12 : David Spivak
April 19 : Remy Tuyeras
How to do genetics with category theory I.
April 26 : David Spivak
May 10 : Remy Tuyeras
How to do genetics with category theory II: Recognition of biological mechanisms.
May 17 : Christoph Dorn (Oxford)
May 24 : Tim Havel
May 31 : Brendan Fong
Causal theories: a categorical approach to Bayesian networks.
June 7 : David Spivak
June 14 : Remy Tuyeras
How to do genetics with category theory III.
June 21 : Brendan Fong
July 19 : David Spivak
July 26 : David Spivak
August 2 : Antwane Mason (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)
August 9 : David Spivak
In last week's seminar, we heard from Antwane Mason about Goguen and Burstall's notion of institution, which is a category-theoretic formalism used for software specification and verification. The definition is usually phrased in terms of a satisfaction relation between models and sentences of signatures, and a certain bivariant coherence condition on it.
In this talk I will discuss a few different category-theoretic perspectives on this notion, including from categorical database theory, posetal bifibrations, and topos theory. In the order "signatures, models, sentences, satisfaction", we can view
August 16 : Brendan Fong
August 23 : David Spivak
An introduction to double categories
August 30 : Brendan Fong
2-categories and adjunctions
September 10 : David Spivak
Adjunctions and Mates
September 17 : Remy Tuyeras
October 1 : Reuben Cohn-Gordon (Stanford)
In cooperative conversation, speakers tend to prefer informative utterances, and listeners assume the speaker is being informative in order to draw inferences. For instance, if you hear me say "John liked half of the concert", you infer that he did not like to other half, since as an informative speaker, I would then have said "John liked the concert", were that true. Bayesian models can be used to formalize these inferences.I show that a model of an informative speaker (that says as much as is possible) can be defined as a right Galois connection (right adjoint between posets) to a literal listener, understood as a monotone function (functor between posets) from utterances to possible worlds. Dually, a pragmatic listener (that deduces that no more is meant that is said) is a left adjoint of a literal speaker, understood as a monotone function from possible worlds to utterances. While elementary, this points to a deeper category-theoretic formulation of Gricean pragmatics and more generally, cooperative games.
October 11 : Paolo Perrone (Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the
Monads are a categorical concept which can be interpreted as encoding formal expressions, or formal operations in the sense of universal algebra. We give a construction which formalizes the idea of “evaluating an expression partially”: for example, “2+3” can be obtained as a partial evaluation of “2+2+1”, and conversely, we can view “2+2+1” as a partial decomposition of “2+3”. This construction can be given for all monads on a concrete category, and it is linked to a simplicial object called the bar construction, of which it gives an operational interpretation: the bar construction is a simplicial set, and its 1-cells are partial evaluations.
We study the properties of partial evaluations for general monads on concrete categories. We prove that whenever the multiplication of the monad is weakly cartesian, partial evaluations can be composed via the usual Kan filler property of simplicial sets, of which we give an interpretation in terms of substitution of terms.
For the case of probability monads, partial evaluations correspond to what probabilists call conditional expectation of random variables, which is used to define martingales. It follows that a martingale is equivalently described as a chain of partial decompositions.
This talk is part of a work in progress on a general operational interpretation of the bar construction.This is joint work with Tobias Fritz.
October 15 : David Myers (Johns Hopkins University)
In order to make a model of some system, we have in mind the sort of things in that system we intend to model; we have an ontology of our model, and we hope the things in this ontology correspond to the things in the system. But coming up with such an ontology is more of an art than a science. A model's success is judged on its ability to predict, not how much it matches our intuitive ontology. What things do our best models actually model?
Can we find a "natural ontology" of a model, one that comes from the model itself and contains only the things the model is modelling? What is a thing, anyway? In this talk, we will look at a categorical approach to these problems using the yoga of behavior types.
October 29 : Lee Mondshein
How can category theory be productively applied to extend concepts and techniques of logic and linguistics, so as to elucidate the behavior of biological networks?
I will discuss some concrete initial steps, based upon current categorical constructs in logic and topology, and will explain the relevance of emerging semiotic ideas concerning meaning-making and meaning transformation in biological networks.
November 5 : Remy Tuyeras
November 19 : Ed Wike
November 26 : David Spivak
Brendan and I have been developing a new categorical viewpoint—and graphical calculus for—regular logic. I've recently been thinking about how some of the surrounding ideas might apply to learning and adaptation via something I might call a "theory building" adjunction. Some of these ideas seem to connect to Reuben Cohn-Gordon's recent seminar talk on the "Gricean adjunction" from pragmatics.The ideas I'll present are at an early stage in terms of maturity, and the goal of the talk is to be fun and pictorial. Still, I will certainly make connections to the underlying mathematical abstractions.
December 3 : Alex Kavvos (Wesleyan)
December 10 : Brendan Fong
January 31 : Jules Hedges (Oxford)
February 7 : Brendan Fong
An overview of Ellerman's Partition Logic.
February 14 : Brendan Fong
February 21 : Tobias Fritz (Perimeter Institute)
I will explain how monads often arise as Kan extensions of graded monads. For example, the set of lists over an alphabet is the disjoint union of the sets of lists of each length. I will then show how this leads to a construction of a probability monad similar to the Giry monad. The graded monad approach lets us replace the use of measure theory by the combinatorics of finite sets, and makes precise the idea that a probability measure is an idealized version of a finite sample.Joint work with Paolo Perrone.
February 28 : Sam Tenka
March 7 : Brendan Fong
March 21 : Rúnar Bjarnason (Unison Computing)
March 28 : Anthony Bau
April 4 : Natalie Stewart
A PERT chart is a project management tool used to schedule, organize, and coordinate tasks within a project. The data of a PERT chart is a list of activities, together with their durations and dependencies on each other; the PERT chart formats this data as a certain duration-weighted graph. In this talk we'll discuss how these durations form a preorder R, which in fact has the structure of a quantale. This allows us to see PERT charts simply as R-enriched categories, and think about project scheduling in terms of categorical constructions.This talk is based on the following n-Category Café post by Simon Willerton: https://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2013/03/project_planning_parallel_proc.html. No familiarity with enriched categories will be assumed.
April 11 : David Spivak
May 2 : David Spivak
Abelian categories are "convenient places to calculate", e.g. to do homological algebra. One nice feature of abelian categories is that they are regular, meaning that each has a well-working calculus of relations. This calculus can be given a graphical formulation, with a "user interface" of wiring diagrams that we can specify mathematically.I'll present abelian categories from this point of view, with the following compressed mathematical specification: a graphical abelian calculus is a bi-ajax po-functor P: LinRel-->Poset. Unpacking this, I'll explain that there is a graphical syntax of linear relations, which is a mild ("thin") extension of Sobocinski's graphical linear algebra. It forms a po-category LinRel, and functors from LinRel to the po-category of posets provide semantic content to this syntax: they tell us how we can "fill the shells". Any lax monoidal po-functor P: LinRel-->Poset whose laxators have both left and right adjoints gives rise to an abelian category, and all abelian categories (up to equivalence) arise in this way.
May 9 : Alberto Speranzon (Honeywell)
May 16 : Diego Roque
May 23 : David Spivak
Planning in autonomous systems is generally hierarchical. A goal is given to a higher-level planner, which decides on a sequence of actions that will accomplish it given the current conditions. Each of these actions is then handed off as a goal to some lower-level planner. To make dinner, we need to go to the store, get ingredients, bring them home, and cook, but going to the store requires choosing a route, and in turn, each step along the route is accomplished by choosing and executing a certain sequence of muscle movements.We will think of planners as generalized Markov decision processes, where we replace the nondeterminism-and-reward aspect of an MDP by an arbitrary monad M on Set. These will be the objects of a category M-MDP, and we formalize "handing off high-level actions to lower-level planners" as morphisms. If M is monoidal, the result will be a symmetric monoidal category, the idea being that a team of bosses can issue commands to be executed by a team of performers.
May 30 : Mitchell Riley (Wesleyan)
July 30 : Kenneth Harris (UCL)
August 8 : Gershom Bazerman (Awake Security)
August 15 : Daniel Rosiak (DePaul)
Tolerance relations are binary relations where just reflexivity and symmetry, but not transitivity, are assumed to hold. Forcing transitivity is obviously natural (and very useful) in many mathematical contexts, but there are a variety of interesting applications where imposing transitivity simply does not seem appropriate. The category of tolerance spaces (with tolerance-preserving functions) has monoidal closed structures, and I will mostly look closely at a few applications and examples displaying what it looks like to enrich over this category.
I may also look briefly at some connections to t-norms—in particular lattice-valued t-norms (lifting the set of truth-values in a fuzzy logic beyond the real interval [0,1])—and some properties of fuzzy tolerance, in the course of which I will touch on some broader interactions with generalized (Lawvere) metric spaces.Finally, I will make a few connections between all this and sheaves, and possibly indicate some more general ideas on metrics on the category of sheaves.
August 22 : Brendan Fong
August 29 : Ben Sherman
September 26 : Simon Cho (Michigan)
October 3 : David Spivak
In this talk, we'll discuss lenses, which have lately been showing up all over applied category theory: in the theory of functional programming, databases, hierarchical planning, open discrete dynamical systems, open economic games, and supervised learning. Lenses are somewhat peculiar-looking things, but at least they form a symmetric monoidal category, denoted Lens.
I hold the opinion that lenses should really be viewed within the larger, more geometrically-flavored category of bundles—objects in Lens are the trivial bundles—and that the reason lenses look peculiar is because the geometric aspect is obscured when we restrict to the special case.
To explain this, I'll show that Lens embeds into a larger symmetric monoidal category that provides geometric intuition, has better formal properties, and will likely be more familiar to mathematicians, e.g. to algebraic geometers. From this viewpoint, lenses become strongly related to that of polynomial functors, which show up in functional programming as "containers" and in database theory as "functorial data migration". I'll generalize further so that examples of lenses include continuous dynamical systems and a more principled (though still partial) solution to the view-update problem in database theory.
October 10 : Brendan Fong
Morphisms in a symmetric monoidal category can be depicted using string diagrams; this is a celebrated fact that underpins much of applied catgeory theory. It often happens, however, that one wishes to use special, additional icons in a string diagram language; more formally, this means every object is equipped with additional algebraic structure. For example, in a hypergraph category each object is equipped with a notion of wiring, or in a category with products each object has a diagonal map. In these cases, the minimal structure required for a nice string diagram language is a simple compatibility condition between the algebraic structures on each object and the monoidal product. If this condition holds, we say that the category supplies the structure.
In this talk I'll give some examples of supply, and outline a few theorems that show the compatibility condition is really what is necessary for nice diagrams. The material will form an accessible introduction to my paper with David of the above title.