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Allen School celebrates fundraising and construction milestones for new Bill & Melinda Gates Center

Rendering of Gates Center looking toward the Allen CenterToday, the Allen School and University of Washington announced the conclusion of fundraising for the new Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering and the “topping out” of the building’s structure — two significant milestones in the school’s quest to expand its impact and educate more of Washington’s students to be the innovators and leaders of tomorrow.

Fundraising for the project was brought to a close thanks to a $15 million gift from Bill and Melinda Gates. This latest gift is distinct from that which inspired the university to name the building in their honor, which was spearheaded by Microsoft and a group of longtime friends and colleagues as a surprise to the couple. More than 300 donors in total contributed to the campaign to build a second computer science building on the UW campus — sustaining the Allen School’s momentum and advancing its reputation as one of the preeminent computer science programs in the nation.

“This is a special honor, because the University of Washington is a special place to me. Melinda and I are thrilled to be able to support this world-class institution in various ways,” Bill Gates told UW News. “Thank you to everyone who made this building possible. I’m excited about what it will mean for the university and our entire community.”

With the topping out, the school moves a step closer to achieving its vision of providing an unparalleled education and research experience to more students. This milestone marks the halfway point in construction, when the structure has reached its maximum height — hence the expression “topping out”— and the final steel beam is ready to be hoisted into place. After that, the construction crew will commence work on the enclosure and interior of the building.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Center is designed to complement the adjacent Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering and provide sufficient space for the school to double annual degree production and strategically grow its faculty. It will also enable pursuit of exciting initiatives that will keep it at the forefront of computing innovation, including purpose-built spaces to house the school’s research in robotics, DNA-based computing, human-computer interaction, and other areas in which the Allen School is or aspires to be a world leader.

“Bill and Melinda are first and foremost driven to have an impact — on innovation, on people’s lives, and on society as a whole,” noted Hank Levy, Allen School Director and Wissner-Slivka Chair in Computer Science & Engineering. “The building will equip us to expand our impact on all three, with new labs, classrooms, offices, and collaboration spaces that will help us deliver an unparalleled experience to more students and continue pushing the boundaries of our field.”

Construction site of the Bill & Melinda Gates CenterAmong other highlights of the Bill & Melinda Gates Center will be a new undergraduate commons that will function as a home away from home for the more than 1,000 students enrolled in the major. It is one of many elements of the building’s design that create an inviting and inclusive environment for the Allen School’s rapidly growing community.

“I’m especially excited about the opportunities that this building will create for women in computer science,” said Melinda Gates. “That’s an area where the Paul G. Allen School has excelled, and an area where I hope this new building will enable women to do even more.”

With the completion of the building fundraising, the Allen School will shift its “Campaign for CSE” to focus on amassing support for student scholarships and fellowships, professorships, and new initiatives — support that will be essential for the school to achieve the vision enabled by its expanded footprint.

“Now we have to fill that building with the people who will generate the breakthrough innovations of tomorrow,” Levy said.

Construction of the Bill & Melinda Gates Center is on track for completion by the end of 2018. The building will be ready for occupancy in early 2019.

For more information on today’s announcement, read the UW News release here. Check out coverage by GeekWire here and Xconomy here.

The Allen School community is exceedingly grateful to Bill and Melinda for investing in our vision, to Microsoft President Brad Smith for his leadership throughout the campaign, and to our many donors and friends whose generosity and goodwill have made this project possible!

December 13, 2017

Pascale Wallace Patterson: The inspirational student leader who aspires to change the world

Pascale Wallace PattersonAfter a brief hiatus, our popular feature highlighting the adventures and achievements of the Allen School’s amazing undergraduate students is back. This edition of the Undergrad Spotlight profiles recent bachelor’s alumna and Oregon native Pascale Wallace Patterson, who is currently a student in the Allen School’s fifth-year master’s program.

At the Allen School’s Women in Computing Reception in October, Patterson received the inaugural Lisa Simonyi Prize. The award was established with support from Charles and Lisa Simonyi to recognize a graduating student who exemplifies the school’s commitment to excellence, leadership, and inclusiveness and who has the potential to change the world through computing. Patterson previously earned the Outstanding Senior Award and the Bob Bandes Memorial Award honoring exceptional teaching assistants in computer science, which were announced during the Allen School’s graduation celebration in June.

In addition to being a vital contributor to the Allen School community through her academic leadership and service, Patterson has also completed software engineering internships at multiple companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, and Zymergen. She took a break from her studies this quarter to do a second stint at Google, where she is currently working with the cloud storage team in the company’s Seattle office. Patterson took time out of her busy schedule to share some thoughts on her experiences at the Allen School and her plans for the future.

Allen School: What inspired you to enroll in the 5th year master’s program?

Pascale Wallace Patterson: I applied to the program at the end of my junior year, when the thought of my imminent graduation was looming. I realized that I needed more time in school to figure out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to end up. At the time, I was still bouncing around ideas about whether I wanted to pursue a lecturing position, a Ph.D., or head straight to industry. The fifth-year master’s program offers the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about my interests and aspirations before committing to a more permanent path.

Allen School: What is your favorite aspect of being an Allen School student?

PWP: The inclusiveness and sense of community. I was warned when I came to the University of Washington that the university in its entirety is gigantic, so I was slightly worried that I would feel like I was drowning among the masses. And I have to admit, my freshman year (before I became a CS major), I did feel that way a little bit. But the school feels like a small community within the huge university. I was able to get to know my professors, which was important to me, and I found a great group of friends among the teaching assistants.

Allen School: You are the first student to receive the Lisa Simonyi Prize. What impact did that have on how you view yourself and your decision to pursue computer science?

Lisa Simonyi, Pascale Wallace Patterson, Charles Simonyi

Pascale Wallace Patterson (center) with Lisa Simonyi (left) and Charles Simonyi at the Women in Computing Reception

PWP: I want to express how honored I am to have received this prize. I didn’t see it coming because the school and the Simonyis wanted to keep it a surprise. A week or so before the Women in Computing Reception, I was advised that I should attend, but I was given few other details. I was – and still am – blown away. When the Simonyis stepped up to the podium to describe the award, Lisa told the audience that she and her husband had chosen a winner who they believed would cause a ripple effect and inspire others to achieve greatness. Specifically, she mentioned that she hoped her own two daughters would be inspired.

The emotions that I felt when Lisa announced my name are hard to describe. I have spent my life being inspired by my own role models, and being motivated by their brilliance. I think that as children, we grow up believing that we will change the world and hoping that we will be like the role models that win our respect. But sometime during the teenage and college years, we lose sight of the confidence that felt natural as a child. We realize that life is complicated. And at least for me, the idea of being a person who might inspire others had fallen from my radar.

I was trying to find my own way, and that meant burying myself in my work, and oftentimes feeling overwhelmed and a bit clueless. Sometimes I felt like everyone else had their lives figured out, and meanwhile I was just taking it one day at a time. When Lisa called out my name, the first feeling was one of disbelief, followed immediately by a rush of childlike self-assurance that I hadn’t experienced in years. The self-doubt was replaced with determination to live up to the challenge and be an inspiration.

Allen School: What do you like to do when you’re not in front of a computer?

PWP: I spend a lot of my time using food as a social activity, and I am a big fan of small dinner parties. Because of all that eating, I try to have at least one hobby that includes exercising. Recently, I’ve gotten into road biking, and a friend and I have promised each other that we are going to participate in the Seattle to Portland race next July!

Allen School: Have you decided on your path after graduation?

PWP: I think I would like to work full-time at a software company for a few years, but I am still deciding where. When I first started at UW, I thought I wanted to be doctor. Although I have decided since then that medical school is not right for me, I am still passionate about medicine and healthcare. I am hoping that sometime in the not-so-far future, I will be able to focus on software for medicine.

Allen School: Who or what in the Allen School has inspired you the most?

PWP: I think I’ve been most inspired by my peers. The school is really an amazing group of individuals. I’m surrounded by brilliant young minds — I have friends who are creating their own start-ups, working at top-tier companies, lecturing CSE courses, collaborating on research with world-renowned professors…you name it. I am confident that my friends will change the world with their talents, and that makes me feel like I can, too.


We are confident that she can, indeed, change the world — thank you, Pascale, for your commitment to excellence and for serving as a role model to the students who will follow in your footsteps!


December 11, 2017

Researchers create the first 3-D printed smart objects that communicate over WiFi

Vikram Iyer, Shyam Gollakota, Justin Chan

The research team, from left: Vikram Iyer, Shyam Gollakota, and Justin Chan

Researchers in the Allen School’s Networks & Mobile Systems Lab have created the first smart objects made entirely of 3D-printed parts that are capable of communicating over WiFi. The project, which builds upon team members’ pioneering work on backscatter communication, will enable new capabilities for the Internet of Things and smart-home applications without the need for batteries and other electronics.

“Our goal was to create something that just comes out of your 3-D printer at home,” Vikram Iyer, Ph.D. student in electrical engineering and co-lead author of the research paper, explained in a UW News release. “But the big challenge is how do you communicate wirelessly with WiFi using only plastic?”

Iyer and colleagues Justin Chan, a Ph.D. student in the Allen School and co-lead author of the paper, and Allen School professor Shyam Gollakota leveraged old and new techniques to address that challenge. The team combined the physical action of gears, coil springs, and other components — reminiscent of how a mechanical watch keeps time — with backscatter, a method of wireless communication in which devices transmit data by reflecting ambient radio frequency (RF) signals that are then decoded by a WiFi receiver.

To bridge the mechanical and the digital, the researchers 3-D printed components using commercially available filaments that combine plastic with a conductive material such as copper or graphene. As the components are triggered by a physical action, the conductive switch intermittently connects and disconnects with the object’s built-in antenna. A turning gear, encoded with 0 and 1 bits based on the absence or presence of a tooth, toggles the backscatter switch from its reflective to non-reflective state to produce signal patterns that are decoded by the WiFi receiver. The objects are powered through energy harvested as part of the physical interaction, stored in plastic springs, or produced by 3D printable sensors.

To illustrate the practical applications, the team produced a 3-D printed flow meter that can be attached to a bottle of laundry detergent to measure how much liquid is used each time it is poured. By tracking usage and transmitting information about when the contents are running low, this handy add-on turns a regular plastic bottle into a smart object capable of measuring and maintaining a steady supply of an essential household item.

“The speed at which the gears are turning tells you how much soap is flowing out,” explained Gollakota. “The interaction between the 3-D printed switch and antenna wirelessly transmits that data. Then the receiver can track how much detergent you have left and when it dips below a certain amount, it can automatically send a message to your Amazon app to order more.”

3-D printed gearsIn addition to devices for measurement and tracking, the researchers developed wireless buttons, knobs, and sliders that can be used as battery-free controls for interacting with various systems throughout the home, from adjusting the volume of music to turning on the lights. They also experimented with a filament containing a combination of plastic and iron, taking advantage of its magnetic properties to embed data within the object itself as multiple sequences of bits. The encoded information can be read by a smartphone.

“It looks like a regular 3-D printed object but there’s invisible information inside,” noted Chan. Potential applications include inventory tracking and robot-object interaction.

The team presented its work at the Association for Computing Machinery’s recent SIGGRAPH Asia Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques in Bangkok, Thailand.

To learn more, visit the project website here and read the UW News release here. To 3-D print your own smart objects, download the research team’s CAD models here.

December 5, 2017

UW’s Sounding Board wins inaugural Amazon Alexa Prize

Alexa Prize winners onstage at AWS re:Invent

Members of Team Sounding Board onstage at AWS re:Invent 2017

A team of students and faculty from the Allen School and the University of Washington Department of Electrical Engineering has won the inaugural Alexa Prize from Amazon for Sounding Board, a socialbot that interacts with users through engaging and informative conversation. Sounding Board was chosen from among three finalists as part of a worldwide university competition designed to advance the state of the art in conversational artificial intelligence.

The Sounding Board team was led by EE Ph.D. student Hao Fang and EE professor Mari Ostendorf in collaboration with EE Ph.D. student Hao Cheng, Allen School Ph.D. students Elizabeth Clark, Ari Holtzman, and Maarten Sap, and professors Yejin Choi and Noah Smith of the Allen School’s Natural Language Processing (NLP) research group. Their goal was to develop an AI conversation agent capable of engaging in coherent conversation with humans about popular topics and current events. The UW team members produced a socialbot with an average conversation duration of 10 minutes and 22 seconds and earned an average score of 3.17 out of 5 from the company’s panel of independent judges.

As Fang, the team leader, explained, “The philosophy behind developing Sounding Board is bringing a variety of relevant content into a natural conversation. Ultimately, we hope Sounding Board can become a conversational gateway to online information that users enjoy talking with.”

Teams participating in the Alexa Prize competition built their socialbots using the Alexa Skills Kit and AWS cloud. For many on the Sounding Board team, the competition offered an opportunity to try something completely new.

“The students started from scratch, with no experience building a dialog system or working with Alexa skills,” noted Ostendorf, who served as the lead faculty advisor. “But together they brought a breadth of perspectives on language processing and a passion for understanding both the technical and human factors challenges of conversational AI.”

As the competition progressed, the team received continuous, real-world feedback on Sounding Board from millions of Amazon customers who interacted with the competing socialbots anonymously through Alexa.

“This competition was particularly interesting compared to other research competitions in that it let us see how people interacted with our system, outside of the lab,” noted Smith. “It’s pretty unusual for academics to get to observe that kind of real-world interaction.”

That interaction also produced some interesting challenges that the team had to overcome.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced when designing Sound Board was the diversity of people we interacted with,” said Clark. “We needed to handle a wide range of topics, conversational styles, and user personalities and interests.”

Sounding Board is both user-driven and content-driven. The system aims to understand users’ comments in multiple dimensions — such as directives, sentiment, and personality — to best serve their interests, while having interesting and timely content to talk about. Sounding Board actively harvests online content and leverages a knowledge graph to provide connections between related topics which can be used to steer the conversation. But as researchers found out, the process is a two-way street.

“While developing Sounding Board, we observed that users try to accommodate our system almost as much as it attempts to accommodate them,” explained Holtzman. “This led us into an investigation of what really makes conversations work with a resource few scientists ever get to touch: a live, diverse, interactive human data stream.”

According to Sap, the he and his colleagues were able to use this knowledge to provide a more personalized experience to users — a development that sets their socialbot apart.

“Sounding Board is unique in its ability to understand what type of person the user is, and is able to adjust parts of the conversation based on who it thinks the user is,” he said.

Rohit Prasad, vice president and head scientist for Alexa Machine Learning, and Ashwin Ram, senior manager of AI science for Alexa Machine Learning, announced Sounding Board as the winner of the Alexa Prize, which comes with a check for $500,000, earlier today at the AWS re:Invent 2017 conference underway in Las Vegas, Nevada. The runner-up was Alquist from Czech Technical University in Prague, and third place went to What’s Up Bot from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. Sounding Board was the only North American competitor to make it to the final round. A total of more than 100 teams from 22 countries applied to the inaugural competition.

According to Choi, this is only the beginning.

“We envision that conversational AI will be integral at the interface between humans and machines, and the Alexa prize makes an important step toward that vision,” she said. “It has been an exciting journey to build Sounding Board, and we look forward to working on crucial research challenges that we have identified along the way!”

In a blog post about the award, Amazon’s Ram announced that applications for the 2018 Alexa Prize competition will open on December 4.

“It’s been a rewarding initial year — for us and for students and faculty — as we work together to create the future of conversational AI,” he said.

Read the Amazon announcement here, the UW News release here, and a terrific behind-the-scenes look at how the competition unfolded courtesy of Wired here. Visit the Sounding Board website here.

Way to go, team!


November 28, 2017

Siddhartha Srinivasa and Tao Xie named Fellows of the IEEE

IEEE logo and taglineAllen School professor Siddhartha “Sidd” Srinivasa, an expert in robotic manipulation and human-robot interaction, and alumnus Tao Xie, a faculty member at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who specializes in software testing and analytics, have been named Fellows of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest technical professional organization focused on advancing technology in service to humanity. Srinivasa was selected for his “contributions to robotic manipulation and human-robot interaction,” and Xie was recognized based on “contributions to software testing and analytics.”

The IEEE Board of Directors confers the grade of Fellow upon individuals who have amassed an outstanding record of technical accomplishments that have advanced engineering, science, and technology while delivering significant value to society. Fellowship is the highest grade of membership in the organization, and it is regarded both as a prestigious honor and a noteworthy career achievement within the technical community.

Sidd Srinivasa

“I am grateful for the honor,” said Srinivasa about his elevation to Fellow. “It truly belongs to the fantastic students, staff, and colleagues that I have had the pleasure of working with every day, and to my family for supporting and inspiring me.”

Srinivasa joined the Allen School faculty this past fall as the Boeing Endowed Professor from the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University, where he was a member of the Robotics Institute and founding director of the Personal Robotics Lab. He has made pioneering contributions to two fundamental areas of robotics, robotic manipulation and human-robot interaction (HRI), with the aim of enabling robots to perform complex tasks with and around people. A full-stack roboticist, Srinivasa has built several end-to-end systems — including HERB, ADA, HRP3, CHIMP, Andy, and more — that integrate perception, planning, and control in the real world.

Srinivasa’s groundbreaking work in manipulation has enabled robots to push, pull, and sweep objects under conditions of clutter and uncertainty through non-prehensile, physics-based interactions. He is also credited with having created the field of algorithmic HRI through his efforts to build the formal mathematical foundations of human-robot interaction.

While these innovations could transform human-robot cooperation on the factory floor, Srinivasa is most inspired by their potential closer to home.

“I care deeply about building robots that can actually help people in need of care, performing the delicate, dexterous, and mundane activities of daily living with the same fluency and seamlessness as we humans perform so effortlessly each day,” he explained. “I want to get robots out of the factories and into people’s homes!”

To that end, Srinivasa and his team built HERB, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, to serve as a realistic testbed for new algorithms enabling human-robot collaboration. In addition to his role in the lab, HERB has become an ambassador of sorts for Srinivasa and his team — and for the field of robotics, generally. As Allen School director Hank Levy recently observed, “Sidd’s robots are more famous than he is.” That’s just fine, as far as Srinivasa is concerned.

“I still cannot believe that I get paid to build robots — something I would do for free any day!” he declared.

Tao XieSrinivasa is joined among the class of new IEEE Fellows by Allen School alumnus Tao Xie, who earned his Ph.D. from the Allen School in 2005 working with professor David Notkin. Xie is currently a professor and Willet Faculty Scholar in the Department of Computer Science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he heads the Automated Software Engineering Lab. His research interests span software testing and analytics, program analysis, software security, and educational software engineering.

Xie earned the Distinguished Paper Award from ACM SIGSOFT and Best Paper Award from the IEEE/ACM International Conference on Automated Software Engineering in 2009 for “Inferring Resource Specifications from Natural Language API Documentation.” In that paper, Xie and his co-authors presented Doc2Spec, a novel approach for inferring resource specifications from application programming interface (API) documentation to detect software bugs.

As a visiting researcher at Microsoft Research — a frequent collaborator throughout his early career — Xie contributed a core search algorithm for the IntelliTest automated test generation feature that shipped as part of Visual Studio 2015 Enterprise Edition. Xie has also engaged in multiple joint projects with MSR’s Software Analytics group in China, which has produced more than 60 high-profile publications in automated test generation, software analytics, and computer science education.

“I would like to express my great appreciation to the late David Notkin and to UW CSE for their support during my Ph.D. there from 2000 to 2005, and in my faculty career afterward,” said Xie.

Srinivasa and Xie are not the only members of the 2018 class of IEEE Fellows with a UW connection: Thomas Furness, a professor in the Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering, is also recognized for his “leadership in virtual and augmented reality.”

The IEEE has more than 420,000 members in 160 countries. Each year, nominations are accepted for the Fellow Program to recognize members with extraordinary records of accomplishment in the organization’s fields of interest, which include aerospace systems, biomedical engineering, computing, consumer electronics, energy, telecommunications, and more. A maximum of one-tenth of one percent of the total voting membership can be elevated to Fellow status in a given year. This new round of designations takes effect on January 1, 2018.

Srinivasa’s election as an IEEE Fellow brings the total number of Allen School faculty members who have earned this distinction to 15.

Congratulations to Sidd, Tao, and Thomas!


November 22, 2017

Allen School and Madrona Venture Group celebrate student innovation at annual research day

Sidd Srinivasa addresses the crowd

Allen School professor Sidd Srinivasa talks about his quest for a unified mathematical model for human-robot interaction

Each year, the Allen School welcomes industry partners, alumni and friends to our Affiliates Research Day to learn about the latest work by our faculty and students and to explore the future of computing-related research. Yesterday, more than 200 people participated in our 2017 Research Day, which featured technical talks on core and emerging areas of the field, a luncheon keynote by professor Sidd Srinivasa on human-robot interaction, and our evening open house and poster session.

During the open house, participants were invited to embark on self-guided tours of the Paul G. Allen Center, where more than 50 research teams presented posters and demos of their latest work. The evening afforded student researchers an opportunity to explain their projects to local industry leaders and technologists and, for some, to earn bragging rights (and some terrific prizes) as part of the Madrona Prize and People’s Choice Award competitions.

Madrona Venture Group sponsors the Madrona Prize — now in its 12th year — to recognize student researchers whose work represents exciting new directions and potential for commercialization.

“The newly named Paul G. Allen School has a long history of research that improves lives and delivers business and research growth to the region,” said Madrona Managing Director Tim Porter.

The winners were announced at the conclusion of the open house, along with the winners of the People’s Choice Award for visitors’ favorite posters of the evening. Read on for a complete run-down of the people and projects who were recognized as part of this year’s event.

2017 Madrona Prize


Tim Porter, Manuel Nordhoff, Eunice Jun, and Hank Levy onstage

Madrona’s Tim Porter (left) congratulates Madrona Prize winners Manuel Nordhoff and Eunice Jun as Allen School Director Hank Levy looks on

The Madrona team selected two related projects in human computer interaction research developed under the guidance of Allen School professor Katharina Reinecke as joint grand-prize winners in this year’s competition:

LabintheWild: Large-scale Online Experimentation with Diverse Uncompensated Samples (postdoc Nigini Abilio Oliveira; Ph.D. student Eunice Jun; professor Katharina Reinecke) and Augury: Predicting visual appeal of website design (visiting scientist Manuel Nordhoff and professor Katharina Reinecke).

Runners up

A Unified Approach to Interpreting Model Predictions (Ph.D. student Scott Lundberg and professor Su-In Lee)

Real-time VR Video Processing with the Hardware-friendly Bilateral Solver (Ph.D. student Amrita Mazumdar; postdoc Armin Alaghi; professors Luis Ceze and Mark Oskin)

Group photo of prize winners and representatives of Madrona Venture Group

Madrona Prize winners and runners up with the Madrona Venture Group team

TVM: End-to-end IR Stack for Deep Learning Systems (Ph.D. students Tianqi Chen, Thierry Moreau, and Haichen Shen; Fudan University undergraduate and AWS intern Ziheng Jiang; professors Luis Ceze, Carlos Guestrin, and Arvind Krishnamurthy)

2017 People’s Choice Award


Learning Stylized Character Expressions from Humans (Ph.D. students Deepali Aneja, Bindita Chaudhuri; Zillow research scientist Alex Coburn; artist Gary Faigin; professors Linda Shapiro and Barbara Mones)

Runners up

People's Choice award winners onstage

Winners of the People’s Choice Award onstage with Allen School professor Ed Lazowska (left) and External Relations Director Kay Beck-Benton (right)

IDCam: Precise Item Identification for AR-Enhanced Object Interactions (Ph.D. students Hanchuan Li, Eric Whitmire, and Alex Mariakakis; Qualcomm engineer Victor Chan; former postdoc and Disney Research scientist Alanson Sample; professor Shwetak Patel)

RoyalFlush: Non-invasive toilet water overflow detector (Electrical Engineering Ph.D. students Farshid Salemi Parizi and Josh Fromm; professor Shwetak Patel)

View the complete list of featured posters and demos here, and Madrona’s blog post here. Also check out GeekWire’s coverage of Srinivasa’s talk here, and the open house here.

Many thanks to our friends at Madrona to all of the members of our extended Allen School community who joined us in supporting student innovation!


November 16, 2017

Hooray for Hollywood? New tool reveals gender bias in movie scripts

Graph showing analysis of power and agency of characters in the Disney movie "Frozen"

If, as Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” then the art of film has a lot to answer for when it comes to the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. Thanks to researchers in the Allen School’s Natural Language Processing research group, we now have a way to measure the sometimes subtle biases in how men and women are portrayed on the big screen — and increase our understanding of how language shapes our perception of gender roles.

A team that includes Ph.D. students Ari HoltzmanHannah Rashkin and Maarten Sap, bachelor’s alumna Marcella Cindy Prasetio, and professor Yejin Choi analyzed nearly 800 movie scripts across multiple genres and found that male characters tend to be vested with higher levels of authority and control over their own destinies than their female counterparts. The researchers applied connotation frames — a method for understanding the connotations associated with different verbs — to assess characters’ level of power and agency through their actions and speech. Even after controlling for the disparity in the number of roles, quantity of dialogue, and screen time assigned to male versus female characters, the team found that males consistently scored higher across all genres.

“What we found was that men systematically have more power and agency in the film script universe,” Holtzman said in a UW News release.

In addition to analyzing scripts, the team applied its framework to the plot summaries of several popular Disney princess movies. What they found was that, when it came to power and agency, several of Disney’s most beloved characters are not exactly living a fairy tale. This includes Anna, one of the main protagonists in the popular 2013 film, “Frozen.” While her sister, Elsa, was portrayed as being in command of her own destiny, Anna possessed much less control and often had to rely on the assistance of a man — showing that when it comes to gender stereotypes, not much has changed in the Disney universe in over half a century.

“Anna is actually portrayed with the same low levels of power and agency as Cinderella, which is a movie that came out more than 60 years ago,” said Sap, lead author of the paper that describes the team’s results. “That’s a pretty sad finding.”

Maarten Sap, Hannah Rashkin, Ari Holtzman, Marcella Cindy Prasetio, Yejin Choi

The research team (clockwise from top left): Maarten Sap, Hannah Rashkin, Ari Holtzman, Yejin Choi, and Marcella Cindy Prasetio

The project built upon previous work by Choi, Rashkin, and former Allen School postdoc Sameer Singh that defined connotation frames for analyzing how a writer’s choice of verb implies certain attitudes and relationships between subjects — revealing how seemingly objective statements by an author can influence readers’ judgment about people and events. Originally conceived as a potential tool for analyzing subtle biases in online media, the framework was extended to reveal how the verbs used by and in relation to movie characters suggest power and influence along gender lines.

The researchers’ approach goes beyond a well-known method for measuring gender bias in known as the Bechdel Test. That test has gained traction over the last decade as a proxy for identifying films that offer a more robust portrayal of women that is about more than their relationships with men. Whereas the Bechdel Test stipulates that a movie must have at least two characters who are women and who speak to each other about topics other than a man, the Allen School’s framework provides a more nuanced analysis of the differences in how men and women are portrayed on the big screen.

Interestingly, the team discovered the discrepancy is not necessarily down to male writers perpetuating a deeply ingrained gender imbalance — it carries over into films scripted by female writers and overseen by female casting directors, too.

“Even when women play a significant role in shaping a film, implicit gender biases are still there in the script,” Rashkin noted.

While the team focused on characters playing on the big screen, the same method could help people recognize the subtle biases conveyed in books, plays, and more.

“We believe it will help to have this diagnostic tool that can tell writers how much power they are implicitly giving to women versus men,” Choi said, noting that these subtle biases are “deeply integrated in our language.” Eventually, the team hopes to broaden its tool to offer potential solutions, such as suggestions for ways to rephrase passages of text.

Choi and her colleagues created an online database that enables researchers and members of the public to explore their findings for hundreds of popular films. Try out the interactive tool here, and read the UW News release here. Listen to Rashkin and Sap explain their work on an episode of KUOW’s The Record here.

The team presented its findings in September at the Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP 2017) held in Copenhagen, Denmark.


November 13, 2017

Where the STEM Jobs Are (and Where They Aren’t)

The New York Times writes:

“What recent studies have made increasingly apparent is that the greatest number of high-paying STEM jobs are in the ‘T’ (specifically, computing). …

“‘There is a huge divide between the computing technology roles and the traditional sciences,’ said Andrew Chamberlain, Glassdoor’s chief economist.

“At LinkedIn, researchers identified the skills most in demand. The top 10 last year were all computer skills, including expertise in cloud computing, data mining and statistical analysis, and writing smartphone applications.”

The Allen School’s Ed Lazowska and Berkeley’s David Culler are among those quoted.

Read more here.

November 1, 2017

Fashion-forward: Allen School researchers invent smart fabric that stores data without electronics

Demonstration of smart fabric sleeve unlocking a doorResearchers in the Allen School’s Networks & Mobile Systems Lab have introduced a new kind of smart fabric imbued with computing and interaction capabilities — without the need for onboard electronics. Their work could redefine what we mean by “wearable” and usher in a fashionable new direction for computing.

Smart garments currently on the market typically pair conductive thread with electronic components, batteries, and sensors — elements that cannot be submerged under water or subjected to extreme temperatures. Allen School Ph.D. student Justin Chan and professor Shyam Gollakota discovered that, by harnessing the magnetic properties of the same, off-the-shelf thread, they could dispense with electronics altogether and overcome one of the principal barriers to widespread adoption of wearable technology.

“This is a completely electronic-free design, which means you can iron the smart fabric or put it in the washer and dryer,” said Gollakota in a UW News release.

To produce their smart textiles, the researchers used a conventional sewing machine to embroider the conductive thread onto fabric. They then manipulated the fabric, using a magnet to align the poles in a positive or negative direction to correspond with ones and zeros. The data encoded in the fabric can be read by a magnetometer — an inexpensive device that is built into most smartphones.

Chan and Gollakota envision several potential form factors and uses for the technology, including accessories such as neckties, wristbands, and belts that can do double-duty as data storage and authentication tools.

“You can think of the fabric as a hard disk — you’re doing this data storage on the clothes you’re wearing,” Gollakota explained.

Shyam Gollakota and Justin Chan

Shyam Gollakota (left) and Justin Chan

To illustrate how their smart fabric could offer an alternative to expensive RFID-based authentication systems, they sewed a magnetic patch containing an identifying image onto the sleeve of a shirt, which is then passed in front of a prototype magnetic fabric reader containing an array of magnetometers and a microprocessor. The reader determines whether the signals emitted from the sleeve match a predetermined pattern; if they do, the door is unlocked.

The team’s approach can also be used to enable gesture recognition and interaction. To demonstrate, the researchers sewed magnetized thread into the fingertips of a glove and built a gesture classifier into a smartphone. They then tested six commonly used gestures, each of which emits its own unique combination of magnetic signals, and found that the phone could interpret the signals corresponding to each gesture in real time with 90% accuracy.

“With this system, we can easily interact with smart devices without having to constantly take it out of our pockets,” said Chan, lead author of the research paper describing the team’s work.

While the magnetic signal will degrade over time — think magnetized hotel keycards that are frequently encoded and wiped as guests come and go — like those same keycards, the fabric can be re-magnetized and re-programmed over and over. Another thing the fabric and key cards have in common is their susceptibility to demagnetization in the presence of a strong external magnetic field. This is because fabric constructed with commercially available thread has a weak magnetic field, making it best suited for temporary data storage. The researchers believe that custom fabrics incorporating a stronger magnetic field could offer greater resilience for longer-term applications.

Chan and Gollakota presented their work at the Association for Computing Machinery’s User Interface Software and Technology Symposium (UIST 2017) in Quebec City, Canada last week.

Read the UW News release here, visit the project page here, and check out coverage by MIT Technology ReviewGeekWireInternational Business TimesEngadget, New Atlas, Quartz, The Next WebKOMO News and KING 5 News.

October 31, 2017

The Paul G. Allen School hosts Nancy Pelosi and Suzan DelBene

Photo: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch

Today the Paul G. Allen School was honored to host a roundtable on “Women in 21st Century Jobs” with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Congresswoman Suzan DelBene from Washington’s 1st Congressional District.

Undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and staff explored a wide variety of issues with Pelosi and DelBene including:

  • the barriers that women face in the tech industry
  • policies to encourage more women in STEM
  • public-private partnerships to help close the skills gap
  • sexual harassment in society at large
  • programs that can increase the success of economically disadvantaged and underrepresented minority students in STEM
  • communicating the value of fundamental research
  • approaches to mitigating the spread of misinformation/disinformation online
  • the importance of immigration reform

Our deep thanks to Leader Pelosi and Representative DelBene for spending the morning with us in a truly engaging conversation!

(See coverage in TechCrunch, GeekWire, KING TVKOMO TV, KIRO TV).

October 27, 2017

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