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Allen School’s Team Combo fights hard for each other in the first-ever ICPC North American Championship

Team Combo (left to right): Milin Kodnongbua, Nonthakit Chaiwong, Phawin Prongpaophan, Sorawee Porncharoenwase

Back in February — before the days of widespread flight cancelations, stay-at-home orders and mass Zoom meetings — a group of Allen School students who have a penchant for programming headed to Georgia Tech in Atlanta to do battle in the 2020 North American Championship of the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC). The group, known as Team Combo, had cinched their spot by capturing fourth place in the Pacific Northwest Division 1 regionals the previous November.

It was the first year that ICPC held a North American competition in between regionals and the international competition — and the first time a UW team has faced off against student programmers from outside of their own region.

“The competition in Atlanta was intense, just as we expected,” said team member Phawin Prongpaophan, a junior majoring in computer science. “Despite the fact that the rules were the same — that is, we still had five hours to solve problems — it felt a lot different from the regional competition. The problems were significantly harder and every minute really counts toward the ranking in the nationals.”

The national contest brought together a total of 60 qualifying teams from 11 regional contests. Up for grabs were 18 spots in the world finals in Moscow, Russia. Prongpaophan was joined in Atlanta by sophomore Milin Kodnongbua and junior Nonthakit Chaiwong. The team was coached in both the regional and national competitions by second-year Ph.D. student Sorawee Porncharoenwase, who works with professor Emina Torlak in the Programming Languages & Software Engineering group (PLSE).

According to Porncharoenwase, the chance to participate in an event beyond the regional contest offered a lot of valuable lessons for future competitions, like how to improve the team’s time management. 

At the competition in Atlanta

“We solved five problems out of 12, which is one too few from getting qualified for the world finals,” he said of his team, who finished in the middle of the pack, in 26th place. “They had an incorrect solution for the seventh problem, which, with a small tweak, would be correct. I think our team has a really high potential for next year.”

“One thing I learned from this journey is that teamwork is key to success,” said Prongpaophan. “The competition isn’t about anyone’s strength, but it is about how we deal with it together as a team. I believe we wouldn’t have made it this far without each other.”

Principal Lecturer Stuart Reges, the team’s faculty sponsor who teaches introductory programming courses in the Allen School, was thrilled by the team’s hard work and dedication. He said this year was especially exciting for both the students and coaches since ICPC added the North American component.

“This year marks the first time we have sent a team beyond our regional contest. Our region includes fierce competitors like Stanford, Berkeley, and UBC, which has kept us from qualifying for the international contest. With the addition of the new North American Championship we were finally able to break through,” said Reges. “We are grateful to Google for providing a tour of their campus to the teams that competed in the regional contest and I am personally grateful to our graduate students Sorawee Porncharoenwase and Victor Reis who did all of the work of hosting a local contest, taking teams to the regional, and helping this team attend the North American Championship.”

Another Allen School team, King Gesar, also placed in the top 10 at the Pacific Northwest regionals. Of the teams representing western Washington, UW teams occupied the top 5 spots in the regional competition. 

Way to go Team Combo, Team Gesar and all of the other hardworking UW teams! 


April 14, 2020

Allen School senior Kimberly Ruth awarded College of Engineering Dean’s Medal

Kimberly Ruth, a senior graduating from the University of Washington this spring with bachelor’s degrees in computer engineering and mathematics, has been awarded the College of Engineering’s Dean’s Medal for Academic Excellence. Each year, the college recognizes two graduating students for academic excellence; Ruth’s combination of exemplary grades, rigorous coursework, hands-on research experience, and leadership on campus and off illustrate why she was chosen for the honor.

“We have a very strong program and many of our students are remarkable, but Kimberly stands out even from this select group,” said Allen School director and professor Magdalena Balazinska. “Her drive, leadership, undergraduate research and academic excellence are admirable, and she has only reached the beginning of her potential.”

As a freshman in the Allen School, Ruth set her sights on research right away. During her first quarter on campus, she reached out to professors Tadayoshi Kohno and Franziska Roesner, co-directors of the Security and Privacy Research Lab. Although she had not been on campus very long, Kohno and Roesner decided to interview her for a position as an undergraduate researcher anyway.

“Though we met with several other promising undergraduates that day, we knew before our meeting with Kimberly even finished that she stood out far above the rest,” recalled Kohno. “She has now been working with us since January of 2016, and her work in the past four and a half years has only strengthened that initial impression.”

Ruth’s research focuses on security and privacy for augmented reality (AR) platforms. These emerging technologies, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, generate visual and audio feedback to change a person’s perception of the real world. They also raise new privacy and security risks for users. While working in the Security and Privacy Research Lab, Ruth played a critical role in several research projects. In one project, Ruth worked with Ph.D. student Kiron Lebeck to design an AR operating system that can protect against malicious or buggy output from applications. Ruth was second author on the resulting paper, “Arya: Operating System Support for Securely Augmenting Reality,”  which appeared at the 38th IEEE  Symposium on Security and Privacy and was published in the IEEE Security and Privacy magazine in 2017. Ruth followed that up by co-authoring “Securing Augmented Reality Output,” and “Towards Security and Privacy for Multi-user Augmented Reality: Foundations with End Users” and the following year.

But that wasn’t quite enough for Ruth, who has made the most of her undergraduate research experience. In June of 2017, she also began leading her own project in AR security, focusing on security for multiuser AR applications like the popular game Pokémon Go. The result was ShareAR, a toolkit that helps app developers build in collaborative and interactive features without sacrificing user privacy and security. Ruth and the team published their paper, “Secure Multi-User Content Sharing for Augmented Reality Applications,” last year at the 28th USENIX Security Symposium, where she presented the results.

Ruth, presenting her research at the 28th USENIX Security Symposium

“Kimberly’s work on this project was incredible. She independently raised, explored, prioritized, and answered a range of sophisticated research questions,” said Roesner. “She worked through design questions and implementation subtleties that were not only technically but also intellectually challenging—requiring thoughtful framing of the problem space and inventing new approaches.”

Outside of the lab, Ruth is also an adept teacher, helping her fellow students to succeed as a peer tutor for the Allen School’s Foundations in Computing course last year and inspiring the next generation through Go Figure, an initiative she founded to ignite middle school students’ interest in math.

“Kimberly is wholly deserving of all of the honors she has received, and I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to work with her in this early stage of her career,” said Roesner. “I look forward to seeing all of the great things she will do in the future, whether in computer security research or otherwise.”

In addition to being a Dean’s Medalist, Ruth previously earned the Lisa Simonyi Prize, a 2018 Goldwater Scholarship (Kimberly’s brother Parker, also an extraordinary Allen School senior, received a Goldwater in 2020), finalist standing in the Computing Research Association’s Undergraduate Researcher Award competition in both 2018 and 2019, Washington Research Foundation Fellowships for 2017, 2018 and 2019, and most recently a 2020 National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program. In 2018 she was recognized as a member of the Husky 100, which celebrates UW students who are making the most of their “Husky Experience.” This fall she’ll be pursuing her Ph.D. at Stanford, focusing on computer security and privacy.

Congratulations, Kimberly, and thank you for your commitment to excellence inside and outside of the Allen School!

April 13, 2020

Privacy and the pandemic: UW and Microsoft researchers present a “PACT” for using technology to fight the spread of COVID-19

If you build it, they will come. 

That statement might hold true for a baseball field in rural Iowa — in the days before social distancing, that is — but what about when it comes to building mobile technologies to fight a global pandemic? 

In the balance between individual civil liberties and the common good, there is an obvious tension between the urge to deploy the latest, greatest tools for tracking the spread of COVID-19 and the preservation of personal privacy. But according to a team of researchers and technologists affiliated with the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, UW Medicine and Microsoft, there is a way to build technology that respects the individual and their civil liberties while supporting public health objectives and saving people’s lives. 

In a white paper released yesterday, the team proposes a comprehensive set of principles to guide the development of mobile tools for contact tracing and population-level disease tracking while mitigating security and privacy risks. The researchers refer to these principles as PACT, short for “Privacy Sensitive Protocols and Mechanisms for Mobile Contact Tracing.”

“Contact tracing is one of the most effective tools that public health officials have to halt a pandemic and prevent future breakouts,” explained professor Sham Kakade, who holds a joint appointment in the Allen School and the UW Department of Statistics. “The protocols in PACT are specified in a transparent manner so the tradeoffs can be scrutinized by academia, industry, and civil liberties organizations. PACT permits a more frank evaluation of the underlying privacy, security, and re-identification issues, rather than sweeping these issues under the rug.”

If people were not familiar with the concept of contact tracing before, they surely are now with the outbreak of COVID-19. Public health officials have been relying heavily on the process to identify individuals who may have been exposed through proximity to an infected person to try and halt further spread of the disease. Several governments and organizations have deployed technology to assist with their response; depending on the situation, participation may be voluntary or involuntary. Whether optional or not, the increased use of technology to monitor citizens’ movements and identify other people with whom they meet has rightly sparked concerns around mass surveillance and a loss of personal privacy.

The cornerstone of the PACT framework put forward by the UW researchers is a third-party free approach, which Kakade and his colleagues argue is preferable to a “trusted third party” (TTP) model such as that used for apps administered by government agencies. Under PACT, strict user privacy and anonymity standards stem from a decentralized approach to data storage and collection. The typical TTP model, on the other hand, involves a centralized registration process wherein users subscribe to a service. While this can be a straightforward approach and is one that will be very familiar to users, it also centrally aggregates personally sensitive information that could potentially be accessed by malicious actors. This aggregation also grants the party in question — in this case, a government agency — the ability to identify individual users and to engage in mass surveillance.

The team’s white paper lays out in detail how mobile technologies combined with a third-party free approach can be used to improve the speed, accuracy, and outcomes of contact tracing while mitigating privacy concerns and preserving civil liberties. These include the outline of an app for conducting “privacy-sensitive” mobile contact tracing that relies on Bluetooth-based proximity detection to identify instances of co-location — that is, instances of two phones in proximity, via their pseudonyms — to determine who may be at risk. The team prefers co-location to absolute location information because it is more accurate than current GPS localization technologies, such as those in popular mapping and navigation apps, while affording more robust privacy protections to the user. Depending on the nature of the specific app, such a system could be useful in allowing people who test positive for the disease to securely broadcast information under a pseudonym to other app users who were in close proximity to them, without having to reveal their identity or that of the recipients.

Another example of how PACT can aid in the pandemic response include mobile-assisted contact tracing interviews. In this scenario, a person who tests positive completes a form on their smartphone listing their contacts in advance of the interview; the data remains on the person’s device until they choose to share it with public health officials. The team also describes a system for enabling narrowcast messages, which are public service messages pushed out from a government agency to a subset of the citizenry. Such communications might be used to inform people living in a specific area of local facility closures due to an outbreak, or to notify them in the event that they were at a location during the same time frame as a person who subsequently tested positive for the disease.

Illustration of the PACT tracing protocol. M Eifler

In all cases, the researchers advocate for retaining data locally on the person’s device until they initiate a transfer.

“Only with appropriate disclosures and voluntary action on the part of the user should their data be uploaded to external servers or shared with others — and even then, only in an anonymized fashion,” explained Allen School professor Shyam Gollakota. “We consider it a best practice to have complete transparency around how and where such data is used, as well as full disclosure of the risks of re-identification from previously anonymized information once it is shared.”

Gollakota and his colleagues emphasize that technology-enabled contact tracing can only augment — not entirely replace — conventional contact tracing. In fact, two out of the three applications they describe are designed to support the latter and were developed with input from public health organizations and from co-author Dr. Jacob Sunshine of UW Medicine. There is also the simple fact that, despite their seeming ubiquity, not everyone has a smartphone; of those who do, not everyone would opt to install and use a contact-tracing app. 

As Allen School professor and cryptography expert Stefano Tessaro notes, all contact tracing — whether conventional or augmented with technology — involves tradeoffs between privacy and the public good.

“Contact tracing already requires a person to give up some measure of personal privacy, as well as the privacy of those they came into contact with,” Tessaro pointed out. “However, we can make acceptable tradeoffs to enable us to use the best tools available to speed up and improve that process, while ensuring at the same time meaningful privacy guarantees, as long as the people creating and implementing those tools adhere to the PACT.”

The team, which also includes Allen School Ph.D. students Justin Chan and Sudheesh Singanamalla, postdoctoral researcher Joseph Jaeger, and professor Tadayoshi Kohno — along with the technologists John Langford, Eric Horvitz, and Jonathan Larson at Microsoft — posted its white paper on the preprint site arXiv.org to encourage broad dissemination and conversation around this topic. Read the full paper here.

April 8, 2020

Allen School’s Parker Ruth named a 2020 Goldwater Scholar

Allen School senior Parker Ruth is one of three students from the University of Washington to be named a winner as part of the 2020 Goldwater Scholarship competition sponsored by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship & Excellence in Education Foundation. The scholarship program is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the nation focused on supporting exceptional undergraduates who aim to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering fields.

Ruth, who is majoring in computer engineering and bioengineering, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in computer science and apply computing tools to transform health care through novel hardware and software. He is a part of the university’s interdisciplinary honors program and an undergraduate researcher in the Ubicomp Lab advised by professor Shwetak Patel. Throughout his academic career, Ruth has been exploring the application of computing tools to improve the quality and accessibility of health care. 

“Parker’s maturity and ability to work effectively in a research setting is simply extraordinary for such a young student. He is an undergraduate that is already showing the maturity of a graduate student in terms of unpacking a problem, diving deep into a research question, and executing high quality research studies,” said Patel. “On top of that, he is a very well-rounded student. When we have visitors come to the lab, they don’t even realize he is an undergraduate student. They just assume he is just one of the Ph.D. students given his spectacular research knowledge.”

That research involves developing new sensing and signal processing techniques for screening and diagnosing diseases using commodity and mobile technologies. Ruth has worked on a variety of projects in the lab, including the development of tools related to cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and physical activity monitoring — to name only a few. 

“In one example, Parker helped develop a robust mobile phone tool that uses the camera/flash and the phone’s gyroscope to estimate the pulse transit time to access cardiovascular risk,” Patel said. “He has also been working on an osteoporosis screening tool using sensors on a phone.”

Barry Lutz, a professor in the Department of Bioengineering, worked with Ruth on a multi-disciplinary team project creating rapid tests for HIV drug resistance. It didn’t take long for him to be impressed with Ruth’s capability, intellectual maturity, professionalism and balance of confidence and modesty.

“Parker is a top student, scientific leader, sophisticated researcher, and a kind and humble human being,” Lutz said. “He has all of the ‘typical’ star accomplishments in academics, research, and service; but in each area Parker stands out from other accomplished students due to his uncharacteristic intellectual strength.”

Ruth, who was homeschooled before attending the UW, credits his mother for instilling his drive to learn and experiment.

“My mom transformed our household into a place of experiential and self-driven learning,” he said. “At the core of my mom’s educational philosophy was a priority on imparting a love of learning; as a result, I was raised seeing learning far more like a recreation than an occupation.”

Previously, Ruth’s work on noninvasive continuous blood pressure monitoring earned him a Mary Gates Research Scholarship and a Levinson Emerging Scholars Award. He also received a Washington Research Foundation Fellowship for his contributions to OsteoApp.  

In 2018, three Allen School students were recognized in the Goldwater Scholars competition, including Ruth’s sister, Kimberly, Nelson Liu and Andrew Luo. 

Read the Goldwater Foundation’s press release here, full list of 2020 scholarship winners here, and a related UW News story here.

Congratulations on this outstanding achievement, Parker! 

April 2, 2020

New Virtual Reality Systems course turns students into makers

Students were provided with a kit to build their own head-mounted display, including an LCD, an HDMI driver board, an inertial measurement unit (IMU), lenses, an enclosure, and all cabling

Over a video conference presentation, Eugene Jahn showed viewers an augmented reality program he created to help aspiring Michael Jordans shoot the perfect basket, showing the best path and angle to become a better shooter. The Allen School sophomore is a student in the Virtual Reality Systems CSE 490V taught by affiliate instructor Douglas Lanman, Director of Display Systems Research at Facebook Reality Labs

The students — five graduate students, one sophomore, two juniors and 23 seniors, all studying computer science or computer engineering — spent the winter quarter learning about virtual reality systems, building software and hardware for a complete VR headset in 10 weeks. The hands-on course introduced students to the cross-disciplinary skills needed to create their own VR systems. Jahn and his classmates presented their final projects over Zoom as part of a virtual demo day, instead of in person as originally planned, after the University of Washington moved classes online due to COVID-19. 

“I gave the students the option of not doing the final project because they didn’t have as much time in the lab to build their system, but all of them chose to do it — they all have a ‘maker’ mentality,” Lanman said during his introduction to the online demo day. “Although the students planned to have more time in the maker space in the Reality Lab, they made the most of finishing up their projects and presenting them over a conference call.”

Lanman said he had long dreamed of teaching a course at UW. He saw his chance when he moved to Seattle to join Facebook Reality Labs, reaching out to Allen School faculty shortly after his arrival to discuss possible courses. He said the moment he had been waiting for came when Facebook co-funded the launch of the UW Reality Lab.

“The creation of this center positioned UW, and the greater Seattle region, at the center of augmented and virtual reality revolution,” Lanman said. “When I read about the lab, I knew it was the right time to train a new generation of students to join the growing AR/VR industry being built in our backyard.”

Lanman emailed his idea to Brian Curless and Steve Seitz, who, along with Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman, comprise the Reality Lab’s leadership team. They agreed to the course and Lanman began preparing the materials.

Putting the course together, Lanman said, was a major undertaking. 

“The class goes through almost everything you need to know about the process of building VR headsets, the research that goes into it and actually building one over the course of the quarter,” said Andrew Wei, a graduate student who completed the course. “Then you get to go a little further and you get to explore a bit and do something in VR that you’re interested in, so it made it a great experience.”

As you might expect, the students needed to become very comfortable with computer graphics to set up the rendering engine, Lanman explained. In order to track the headsets, they also had to master a good bit of linear algebra, signal processing, and computer vision methods. Over six assignments the students programmed projects in JavaScript, WebGL, OpenCV, and Arduino frameworks. On top of all this programming, they also had to physically assemble their headsets. 

“Ear Hands,” is a game to showcase the unique potential of VR to depict the position and direction of sounds correctly.

“For many, this was their first time building a piece of hardware, since most are CS students,” he said. “Learning to accept that you’ll break some, or many, parts is an important, albeit stressful, lesson. Thanks to funding from Facebook, it wasn’t an expensive lesson for the students! I’m happy to report that more than 30 students went through this course and are now the fearless hardware-software hackers I dreamed of inspiring.”

From sourcing hardware components for the headset kits to preparing comprehensive lecture notes, the course was custom-built from the ground up. Gordon Wetzstein, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford, had already built course materials over the last five years. He and Lanman have published numerous academic papers together and share an enthusiasm for augmented reality and VR display technology. 

“My first call after getting the green light to bring this course to UW was to Gordon,” Lanman said. He had referred to this as an ‘experimental course’ when he first started offering it at Stanford and he said he was excited to see it ‘graduate’ to other schools.” 

Building off of Wetzstein’s course, Lanman added his own spin, focusing both on computer graphics and computer vision. One unique addition was to implement a positional tracking system for the headset that used the students’ webcams. This eliminated the need for any custom hardware and meant that every student would be able to demo a fully working modern VR system to their friends and family, starting from a box of fairly simple parts. Lanman said they also spent quite a lot more time talking about the optics and display technologies behind modern AR/VR systems, “which happens to be what I work on in my day job.”

Kirit Narain was an undergraduate teaching assistant for the course. Last summer, Narain decided to try Wetzstein’s course on his own, out of an interest in VR and wanting to build his own headset. He said the two courses have some similarities and many differences. One being Lanman.

“490V leans slightly more into Doug’s expertise in displays, graphics and optics – and is more focused on understanding the cutting edge in each of these fields, including solutions still in the research stage,” Narain said. “There is also a bigger focus on augmented reality displays as well, which in my opinion makes it a more rounded class and gives students taking it an amazing insight into exactly how each of these systems works and prepared to take on their challenges.”

Lanman also added field trips and guest lectures into the course. After all, Lanman explained, Seattle is the growing center of the AR/VR universe, so how hard could it be to give students an opportunity to see the latest, greatest technologies — and meet the people behind them — at our local companies? 

“As with the UW faculty, researchers and engineers at Microsoft, Valve, and Facebook Reality Labs were eager to be part of this course. This is the part of the course I’m most proud of: providing an opportunity to unite individuals passionate about AR/VR across the region and try to make something truly unique for the students,” Lanman said. “It was very exciting to see members of these companies, and others, offer guest lectures and sit in on some of the classes.”

Lanman said that building state of the art AR/VR display systems is not a theoretical or pure software exercise: his students had to get their hands dirty and yes, occasionally break things. 

“I hope that this course put hardware projects on students’ radars. This course was designed for students receptive to this path: if you are scared of building a VR headset from scratch, you probably didn’t register. By the end of this course, I can see the students have really sharpened their maker skills,” Lanman said. “I told them at the beginning of the class that research is not as mysterious or difficult as it’s depicted in movies. I’m not sure they believed me. By the end, I am happy to see many students adopt the mentality of a graduate student: if you’re diligent in understanding what’s been done before, it’s not too difficult to figure out the path forward, even if it seems like walking into the unknown.”

For Narain, who was a first time TA, the experience was “unbeatable.” He was particularly keen to play a role in helping students to build a strong conceptual foundation and understanding of the numbers and algorithms, in addition to answering questions and helping them to debug their code. According to Narain, the course material was not easy, and having that maker attitude was crucial to student success. There also was a lot more nitty-gritty mathematics involved than most CSE classes, and working directly with hardware feels unfamiliar to some students.  

“Having conquered these challenges over the last 10 weeks, the boost in student ambition and confidence could clearly be seen with their innovative final projects,” Narain said. “The novelty of AR/VR means there are no standard set of tools or methodologies for interaction yet. Watching the students experiment with different approaches and discovering what works and doesn’t is very interesting for me, too.”

Neil Sorens, a senior majoring in computer science, said he appreciated the way the class pulled together knowledge from many different disciplines: math, physics, computer science and various areas within computer science such as graphics and computer vision.

“Having an incredibly passionate and fun instructor was really motivating because the class was highly challenging,” Sorens said. “It was a good mix of practical and theoretical work, and we had a lot of freedom in choosing our final projects.”

During the virtual demo day, Sorens and his fellow students in the VR Systems class presented their final projects to Lanman, their TAs and each other. Allen School faculty and industry experts were also invited to drop into the Zoom meeting and see the final projects. Students worked on projects that varied, including hardware, body and hand tracking, eye tracking, rendering, audio, training and education, and even applications. In pairs or on their own, students presented a total of 19 projects as a culmination of what they learned over the quarter.

In addition to Jahn’s basketball training project, other presentations include:

Wide field of view

Wide-FOV VR headsets using Fresnel Lenses (Andrew Wei and Daoyi Zhu): A headset with peripheral vision, the team created a prototype with a wide field of vision.

360 degree vision using FOV compression (Neil Sorens): A headset with a 110 degree field of vision and equipped it with a 360 degree camera for specialized real-world applications to give users “eyes in the back of their head.”

Finger tracking using magnetometers (Alex Mastrangelo and Paul Yoo): A glove with magnetometers built in the fingertips that has high accuracy and low power for gaming. 

Inverse kinematics and full-body tracking (Terrell Strong): A headset and controllers with full tracking points and animated arms and a torso to better understand a user’s sense of presence in VR experiences.

Exploring two-handed interactions (Andrew Rudasics): A task for users to manipulate a two-handed object to determine the most comfortable and accurate way to model for users.

VR Wings (Rory Soiffer and Everett Cheng): A game that allows players to fly like a bird through a virtual world by flapping their arms, using custom wing-like controllers.

Eye tracking for VR gaming (Alex Zhang): A shooting game using virtual reality by only using eye tracking techniques.

Real-time foveated ray tracing (Frank Qin and Anny Kong): Implemented foveated ray-tracing to make images more detailed and therefore look more realistic.

VR  Volume Rendering (Xiao Liang, Jeffrey Tian and Nguyen Duc Duong): A 3D experience to use for medical scans in a more realistic manner.

Spatial audio for VR gaming (Thomas Hsu and Christie Zhao): A game that makes the player focus on spatial audio to navigate through the VR world.

VR batting cage (Dylan Hayre): A game that allows users to practice hitting baseballs and adjust their swing to build his or her skills.

3D drawing in VR (Daniel Lyu and Lily Zhao): A VR app that supports letter animation to enhance the learning of vocabulary. 

VR galaxy tour (Natalia Abrosimova and Wenqing Lan): An experience that allows users to experience the galaxy through a VR headset.

Crime scene investigation (Zhu Lu and Weihan Lan): A 3D degree crime scene that allows users 360 degree view of the room to explore for clues.

Sketching in AR with the ability to add 3D model support (Anthony Lu and Jacky Mooc): An application that allows users to import avatars and modify them by drawing or sketching, drawing on their AR device.

VR dueling (Robin Schmit): A multiplayer game was created to sync real-time information from two or more headsets in order to play games with multiple participants. 


March 31, 2020

“Hey, check out this 450-pound dog!” Allen School researchers explore how users interact with bogus social media posts

Dark, swirling clouds over an aerial shot of Sydney harbor and downtown
Is that a superstorm over Sydney, or fake news?

We’ve all seen the images scrolling through our social media feeds — the improbably large pet that dwarfs the human sitting beside it; the monstrous stormcloud ominously bearing down on a city full of people; the elected official who says or does something outrageous (and outrageously out of character). We might stop mid-scroll and do a double-take, occasionally hit “like” or “share,” or dismiss the content as fake news. But how do we as consumers of information determine what is real and what is fake?

Freakishly large Fido may be fake news — sorry! — but this isn’t: A team of researchers led by professor Franziska Roesner, co-director of the Allen School’s Security and Privacy Research Laboratory, conducted a study examining how and why users investigate and act on fake content shared on their social media feeds. The project, which involved semi-structured interviews with more than two dozen users ranging in age from 18 to 74, aimed to better understand what tools would be most useful to people trying to determine which posts are trustworthy and which are bogus.

In a “think aloud” study in the lab, the researchers asked users to provide a running commentary on their reaction to various posts as they scrolled through their social feeds. Their observations provided the team with insights into the thought process that goes into a user’s decision to dismiss, share, or otherwise engage with fake content they encounter online. Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers deployed a browser extension that they had built which randomly layered misinformation posts previously debunked by Snopes.com over legitimate posts shared by participants’ Facebook friends and accounts they follow on Twitter.

The artificial posts that populated users’ feeds ranged from the sublime (the aforementioned giant dog), to the ridiculous (“A photograph shows Bernie Sanders being arrested for throwing eggs at civil rights protesters”), to the downright hilarious (“A church sign reads ‘Adultery is a sin. You can’t have your Kate and Edith too’”). As the participants scrolled through the mixture of legitimate and fake posts, Allen School Ph.D. student Christine Geeng and her colleagues would ask them why they chose to engage with or ignore various content. At the end of the experiment, the researchers pointed out the fake posts and informed participants that their friends and contacts had not really shared them. Geeng and her colleagues also noted that participants could not actually like or share the fake content on their real feeds.

“Our goal was not to trick participants or to make them feel exposed,” explained Geeng, lead author of the paper describing the study. “We wanted to normalize the difficulty of determining what’s fake and what’s not.”

Participants employed a variety of strategies in dealing with the misinformation posts as they scrolled through. Many posts were simply ignored at first sight, whether because they were political in nature, required too much time and effort to investigate, or the viewer was simply disinterested in the topic presented. If a post caught their attention, some users investigated further by looking at the name on the account that appeared to have posted it, or read through comments from others before making up their own minds. For others, they might click through to the full article to check if the claim was bogus — such as in the case of the Bernie Sanders photo, which was intentionally miscaptioned in the fake post. Participants also self-reported that, outside of a laboratory setting, they might consult a fact-checking website like Snopes.com, see if trusted news sources were reporting on the same topic, or seek out the opinions of family members or others in their social circle.

The researchers found that users were more likely to employ such ad hoc strategies over purpose-built tools provided by the platforms themselves. For example, none of the study participants used Facebook’s “i” button to investigate fake content; in fact, most said they were unaware of the button’s existence. Whether a matter of functionality or design (or both), the team’s findings suggest there is room for improvement when it comes to offering truly useful tools for people who are trying to separate fact from fiction.

“There are a lot of people who are trying to be good consumers of information and they’re struggling,” said Roesner. “If we can understand what these people are doing, we might be able to design tools that can help them.”

In addition to Roesner and Geeng, Savanna Yee, a fifth-year master’s student in the Allen School, contributed to the project. The team will present its findings at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2020) next month.

Learn more in the UW News release here, and read the research paper here.

March 19, 2020

Computer Science student and Sophomore Medalist Louis Patsawee Maliyam dances to his own beat

Mark D. Stone/University of Washington

Allen School undergraduate Louis Patsawee Maliyam balances a long-standing love of computing with a passion for the arts. It’s a combination that has served him well at the University of Washington, where he believes his major in computer science and minor in dance has widened his world and prepared him for the future. It has already propelled him to the top of his class, earning him the Sophomore Medalist award from the UW President’s Office for the 2018-2019 academic year in recognition of his academic achievement  and rigorous coursework. 

Maliyam’s interest in computer science began when he was about 10 years old, helping his parents at the internet cafe they owned in Thailand. He would assemble computer parts, install drivers and programs, and troubleshoot whenever there were issues, using Google as his guide.

“I started learning to piece information together like playing with a jigsaw puzzle and solving the problems as best I could,” Maliyam said. “Sometimes it failed but that didn’t stop me from trying. I think the trait of yearning to solve problems paved my way to pursue a computer science degree.” 

From his experience in the family business, Maliyam qualified to attend an Olympiad training camp for computing, which helped him solidify a Royal Thai Scholarship. Awarded to the top students in Thailand, the scholarship sends 50 to 70 to the United States for their college education. He chose to study at the Allen School. 

“I know some UW alumni and I’ve heard about the great faculty and resources in the Allen School,” Maliyam said. “And I was so thrilled to come here to continue my passions and connect with so many people. Plus, I was fascinated by the beauty of the campus, the diversity in Washington state, and the CSE program in general.”

UW Dance’s production of Pink Matter Volume 2: What Is Love? Choreographed by Dani Tirrell and “Majinn” Mike O’Neal, Warren Woo/University of Washington

With his background and interests, it was natural for Maliyam to pick computer science as his major. But he wanted even more versatility and creativity in his studies, so he added a dance minor.

“It connects me to people and teaches me to be vulnerable and strong,” he said. “The dance community provides me a safe space where I can be exposed and supported in the learning process. Dance is not just dance anymore, since it widens how I see the world and helps me redefine myself.”

Computer science, on the other hand, challenges the way he thinks and evaluates daily situations.

“I would say that the CS program has challenged me to grow and become an impactful teacher and engineer, while the dance program has helped me to become a considerate human being and has taught me how to love myself and others,” he explained.

Although he enjoyed tinkering with computers as a child, Maliyam said he developed a true passion for computer science after enrolling in a C/C++ programming course in high school. That passion has solidified during his time in the Allen School.

“I feel inspired by faculty members in the school and also by the engineers I work with,” he said. “I know that if I keep improving on myself, I will be like them one day.”

Recognizing that early exposure to programming isn’t an opportunity everyone enjoys in high school, Maliyam sees being a teaching assistant as an opportunity to give back by sharing his love of computing with others.

“Being a TA is my favorite part of being in the Allen School. It goes beyond teaching for me because it connects me to people, enabling me to become a part of the community and to build up that community,” he explained. “As a TA, I have the opportunity to create a safe learning space for students, help them on their journeys and support them throughout the course.”

As a TA and a student, Maliyam has said he wants to work to cultivate a culture of caring in the school and in the broader technology industry. 

“I feel like we have been greatly trained in our technical skills, however, we still need more training on our  interpersonal and ‘soft’ skills,” he said. “As an international student, I value everyone’s voice. I believe people want to be seen and heard and not feel isolated. Caring for people gives them a sense of belonging.”

Maliyam experienced that first-hand during his software development internship last summer at Indeed.com. He found the engineers he worked with there to be caring and kind, and said they gave him a sense of belonging. Maliyam aims to spread that same culture wherever he goes, including in his work as a mentor in the university’s International Student Mentorship Program

2020 Dance Majors Concert: Do we have home? Choreographed by Sojung “Esther” Lim, Warren Woo/University of Washington

“ISMP is a strong community that I have found uplifting since I began studying at UW, and it’s helped prepare me to be a better leader overall,” he said.

When he is not at his computer or mentoring fellow students, Maliyam enjoys performing under the lights in productions staged by the UW dance department. The rehearsals remind him how lucky he is to be surrounded by wonderfully talented people. 

This summer, Maliyam has an internship with DocuSign, and will apply to the combined B.S./M.S. program. He continues to perform in various dance concerts and is preparing for upcoming auditions.

Congratulations on your medal, Louis — and thank you for cultivating a culture of caring in our school and everywhere you go!  

March 9, 2020

Remembering Paul Young (1936 – 2019)

Former chairs (left to right) Jerre Noe, Paul Young, Jean-Loup Baer, Ed Lazowska

The Allen School community was sad to learn recently that former chair and professor emeritus Paul Young passed away in December. Young was a gifted computer scientist who spent five years as chair of what was then known as the University of Washington Department of Computer Science. During his tenure, Young advanced UW’s reputation as a national leader in computer science education and research, advocated for more resources to bring the best and brightest faculty to Seattle, and initiated conversations around the creation of a permanent, purpose-built home for the program. 

Young, who earned his Ph.D. from MIT following undergraduate studies at Antioch College, joined the UW faculty in 1983 from Purdue University along with his colleague Larry Snyder. The dual recruitment was a major coup for UW, with Young assuming leadership of the CS department at a time of rapidly increasing demand for the major, and Snyder taking the reins of the UW/Northwest VLSI Consortium focused on advancing our leadership in very large-scale integrated circuit design.

Young was a talented educator and researcher with interests that spanned theoretical computer science, including computational complexity, algorithmic theory, formal language theory, and connections with mathematical logic. His leadership and professional activities on and off campus helped to raise the profile of UW Computer Science. After his five years as chair came to a close, Young remained on the UW faculty for another decade, serving for three of those years as Associate Dean of Research, Facilities & External Affairs in the College of Engineering. 

Paul Young (right) with Punkin the “pocket rocket”

In 1994, Young took a leave of absence from the university to serve as Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation for its Directorate for Computing and Information Science and Engineering (NSF CISE). He also was active in the Computing Research Association (CRA) and served on the organization’s board from 1983 to 1991 — the last three years as board chair. Under his leadership, the computing research community ramped up its involvement in science and technology policy. CRA recognized his contributions with its Distinguished Service Award in 1996.

Following his retirement from the UW in 1998, Young joined his wife, Deborah Joseph, in Wisconsin, where she was a member of the computer science faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. They settled into Lime Creek Farm in the southwest corner of the state, where they restored more than 40 acres of prairie habitat and renovated a 100-year-old farm house. Lime Creek also served as a breeding and training ground for the couple’s performance Labrador Retrievers. These included Punkin — the runt of the farm’s first litter of puppies — who earned the nickname “Paul’s Pocket Rocket” due to her combination of intense speed and drive coupled with her diminutive size. Under Young’s tutelage, Punkin earned titles in retrieving, pointing, tracking, obedience, and agility, and she held the distinction of being Wisconsin’s first Grand Master Pointing Retriever.

We will remember Paul for his many contributions to our program and to our field, and we send our condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

March 5, 2020

Allen School and AI2 researchers earn Outstanding Paper Award at AAAI for advancing new techniques for testing natural language understanding

The team onstage at AAAI 2020 (from left): conference program co-chair Vincent Conitzer, Ronan Le Bras, Yejin Choi, Chandra Bhagavatula, Keisuke Sakaguchi, and conference program co-chair Fei Sha

Allen School professor Yejin Choi and her colleagues Keisuke Sakaguchi, Ronan Le Bras and Chandra Bhagavatula at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) recently took home the Outstanding Paper Award from the 34th Conference of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI–20). The winning paper, “WinoGrande: An Adversarial Winograd Schema Challenge at Scale,” introduces new techniques for systematic bias reduction in machine learning datasets to more accurately assess the capabilities of state-of-the-art neural models.

Datasets like the Winograd Schema Challenge (WSC) are used to measure neural models’ ability to exercise common-sense reasoning. They do this by testing whether they can correctly discern the meaning of pronouns used in sentences describing social or physical relationships between entities or objects based on contextual clues. These clues tend to be easy for humans to comprehend but pose a challenge for machines. The models are fed pairs of nearly identical sentences that primarily differ by a “trigger” word, which flips the meaning of the sentence by changing the noun to which the pronoun refers. A high score on the test suggests that a model has achieved a level of natural language understanding that goes beyond mere recognition of statistical patterns to a more human-like grasp of semantics.

But the WCS, which consists of 273 problem sets hand-written by experts, is susceptible to built-in biases that paint an inaccurate picture of a model’s performance. Because individuals have a natural tendency to repeat their problem-crafting strategies, they also have a tendency to introduce annotation artifacts — unintentional patterns in the data — that reveal information about the target label that can skew the results of the test.

For example, if a pair of sentences asks the model to determine whether a pronoun is referring to a lion or a zebra based on the use of the trigger words “predator” or “meaty,” the model will note that the word “predator” is often associated with the word “lion.” In a similar fashion, a reference to a tree falling on a roof will lead the model to correctly associate the trigger word “repair” with “roof,” because while there are very few instances of trees being repaired, it is quite common to repair a roof. By choosing the correct answers to these questions, the model is not indicating an ability to reason about each pair of sentences. Rather, the model is making its selections based on a pattern of word associations it has detected across the dataset that just happens to correspond with the right answers.

“Today’s neural models are adept at exploiting patterns of language and other unintentional biases that can creep into these datasets. This enables them to give the correct answer to a problem, but for incorrect reasons,” explained Choi, who splits her time between the Allen School’s Natural Language Processing group and AI2. “This compromises the usefulness of the test, because the results are not an accurate reflection of the model’s ability. To more accurately assess the state of natural language understanding, we came up with a new solution for systematically reducing these biases.”

That solution enabled the team to produce WinoGrande, a dataset comprising 44,000 sentence pairs that follow a similar format to that of the original WSC. One of the shortcomings of the WSC was its relatively small size owing to the need to hand-write the questions. Choi and her colleagues got around that difficulty by crowdsourcing question material using Amazon Mechanical Turk, following a carefully designed procedure to ensure that problem sets avoided ambiguity or word association and covered a variety of topics. To eliminate any unintentional biases embedded in the dataset at scale, the researchers developed a new algorithm, dubbed AFLite, that employs state-of-the-art contextual representation of words to identify and eliminate annotation artifacts. AFLite is modeled on an existing adversarial filtering (AF) algorithm but is more lightweight, thus requiring fewer computational resources.

The team hoped that their new, improved benchmark would provide a clearer picture of just how far machine understanding has progressed. As it turns out, the answer is “not as far as we thought.”

“Human performance on problem sets like the WSC and WinoGrande surpass 90% correctness,” noted Choi. “State-of-the-art models were found to be approaching human-like levels of accuracy on the WSC. But when we tested those same models using WinoGrande, their performance dropped to between 59% and 79%.

“Our results suggest that common sense is not yet common when it comes to machine understanding,” she continued. “Our hope is that this sparks a conversation about how we approach this core research problem and how we design the benchmarks for assessing future progress in AI.”

Read the research paper here, and a related article in MIT Technology Review here.

Congratulations to Yejin and the team at AI2!

March 3, 2020

Building a satellite has given Allen School undergraduate Nathan Wacker out-of-this-world experiences

In the latest Allen School undergrad spotlight, Nathan Wacker, can proudly say he’s helped build something that is truly out of this world. The third-year Allen School student from Seattle worked on HuskySat-1, a 3U CubeSat that was launched into space on November 2, 2019 and left Northrup Gruman’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft on January 31.

Allen School: What interested you in working on HuskySat-1, and what was your job in the Husky Satellite Lab?

Nathan Wacker: I was interested in joining because I wanted to work on something that was going to space. It still feels surreal to say that I have done it. Working at the lab seemed more tangible than most of the programing I had done up to that point. 

Since I joined the team in the fall of 2017, I have worked on the flight software for the power distribution system, plasma thruster and various other systems on the spacecraft. I also worked quite extensively on our ground station command and control software. Since we are now in space, I have been maintaining the ground station and leading satellite operations. 

Allen School: What was it like watching the cargo craft launch from NASA’s Wallop Flight Facility last November, knowing HuskySat-1 was on it? 

NW: Folks from the lab that weren’t able to attend the launch in person, myself included, gathered in a basement classroom at 6:30 a.m. Saturday, November 2 to watch the NASA stream live. There was a lot of excitement in the room as the rocket disappeared into the clouds, but it was hard not to think about the failure scenarios and how we wouldn’t know until months later whether our satellite had survived. 

Allen School: What kind of information have you learned since the satellite’s deployment? 

NW: Deployment from Cygnus occurred on January 31 and we made first contact several hours later. Since then, we have determined that the power system is healthy, the primary communications system works, and that we are sitting at a cozy temperature — for space. We have also commissioned the camera and taken some low-resolution images of earth.

Allen School: What are some unique lessons you learned while on the satellite team that you might not have experienced anywhere else? 

NW: A few lessons I have learned are: Don’t prematurely optimize, don’t over-engineer, document early and often, test everything. Also, the ability and drive to learn is more valuable than knowledge. These lessons all came from working on a long-term and large-scale project, which is difficult to teach in a classroom.

Allen School: Several academic areas would allow you to work on a project like HuskySat-1, why did you choose to major in computer science? 

NW: Computer programming has always been appealing because smaller-scale projects can be put together quickly and iterated on at no cost other than the computer. Growing up, that was a much quicker path to gratification than woodworking or electronics projects, for instance, but still scratched an itch of mine to build something. 

Allen School: What do you like most about being in the Allen School?

NW: The education is excellent. As a student, it is extremely rewarding to take classes from people who have significantly advanced their field and still care about student success. Upper-division CSE classes are the most interesting classes I have taken at UW. 

Allen School: What are some of your favorite activities or experiences here at the UW?

NW: The Husky Satellite Lab has by far been my most fulfilling experience here at UW. Not only has it been a great engineering experience that has informed my career interests, but I have also had the pleasure of getting to know the talented individuals I work with in a professional and social context. 

Read more about HuskySat-1 and follow the live orbital tracker to stay up-to-date on the satellite’s mission. We are proud to have Nathan as a member of the Allen School community! 

February 25, 2020

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