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Paul G. Allen’s “7 Biggest Moments of 2017”

“In March of 2017, the University of Washington elevated its Department of Computer Science & Engineering to a school and honored Allen by naming it in his honor. Growing up as the son of the university’s Associate Director of Libraries, Allen spent hours and hours at the university not only devouring piles of books but honing his computer skills in the graduate computer lab. UW was also the place where Allen and Bill Gates created Traf-O-Data laying the groundwork for Microsoft. While he never attended the university, the honor wasn’t lost on Allen.”

Read more of Pauls greatest moments here.


January 2, 2018

“Topping out” celebration for new Bill & Melinda Gates Center heralds next phase of Allen School expansion and impact

Shot of the Bill & Melinda Gates Center with final beam in place at nightNearly 300 members of the Allen School’s extended community gathered earlier this month to celebrate two exciting milestones for the new Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering currently under construction across the street from the Paul G. Allen Center: the “topping out” of the steel structure, and the conclusion of fundraising for the project thanks to a $15 million gift from Bill and Melinda Gates. With this step completed, the Allen School is now able to shift the focus of its fundraising efforts from building bricks and mortar to building support for the students and faculty who will use the center as a springboard for creativity, innovation, and global impact.

The topping out was marked by the ceremonial hoisting of the final steel beam, which faculty, staff, and supporters were invited to sign throughout the day. After adding their own signatures to the beam, the Gateses joined fellow special guests UW President Ana Mari Cauce and Microsoft President Brad Smith onstage.

Melinda and Bill Gates sign the beamMelinda Gates recounted for the audience the couple’s surprise and delight when, in the midst of discussing making a building gift of their own, they discovered that more than two dozen of their longtime friends and colleagues had banded together with Microsoft to provide a naming gift in their honor.

“That was a really, really special day for us, and we really appreciated that,” she said. “We couldn’t be more proud to have our names on the building.

“Sometimes, when you agree to a gift, you have to push people in a certain direction,” she continued. “This is a case where because of the work that Ed Lazowska has done and Hank Levy to make sure there are multiple and many pathways for young women and minorities into computer science, we don’t have to do anything except be along for the ride.”

Bill Gates recalled the early days of Microsoft, back when the company numbered 15 employees, and how his hopes for the company and for UW were intertwined.

Hank Levy in hardhat“We had big ambitions, so we were hoping that the university would grow along with us — that its size and its ranking would make it the best in the world,” he said. “And in fact, that’s exactly what’s happened.

“It was a good computer science department; it’s now a great computer science department,” he continued. “If there’s ever been a clear win-win for this region, for Microsoft, for the companies here, and for the students, it’s got to be investing in great computer science. So thank you very much.”

At Allen School Director Hank Levy’s signal — “Okay, Mortenson, beam us up!” — the beam began its ascent to the top of the structure. The beam would later be welded into place, enabling work on the building’s enclosure and interior to begin. The Bill & Melinda Gates Center is slated for completion by the end of 2018 and will be ready for occupancy in early 2019.

Read an excellent recap of the topping out celebration on GeekWire here, and a related UW News release here. See below for a video of the beam-raising and more photos of the evening’s festivities.

We are grateful to our generous donors and friends whose leadership and support over the past several years have made this day possible. We look forward to sharing many exciting and inspiring stories about the faculty and students who will benefit from the building that you helped build!


Brad Smith

Brad Smith, who spearheaded the fundraising campaign, signs the beam


The team overseeing the building project on behalf of the Allen School (from left): Ed Lazowska, Tracy Erbeck, Dawn Lehman, Hank Levy, Paul Beame, and Aaron Timss


Charles Simonyi, Hank Levy, Lisa Simonyi

Charles Simonyi (left) and Lisa Simonyi (right), who co-led the effort to name the building in honor of the Gateses, sign the beam as Hank Levy looks on


Ana Mari Cauce signs the beam

UW President Ana Mari Cauce adds her name to the building beam for posterity


Constance Rice

UW Regent Constance Rice joins in the celebration


LMN Architects team

The team from LMN Architects, which designed the Bill & Melinda Gates Center, pose with the beam


HERB the robot serves soda

HERB – the Home Exploring Robot Butler – serves soda to the crowd inside the Allen Center


Rob Short signing the beam

Campaign co-chair Rob Short (M.S., ’87) signs the beam


Melinda Gates with students

Melinda Gates poses with students she met as part of her advocacy campaign to support more women in STEM fields


Ben Slivka, Lisa Wissner-Slivka

Longtime Allen School supporters Ben Slivka (left) and Lisa Wissner-Slivka


Onstage toast

A toast to the new Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science & Engineering


Beam showing signatures

The beam


Additional photographs here.


December 28, 2017

Thanks to “the shops” – UW Facilities Services

Today was the Paul G. Allen School’s annual thank-you luncheon for the 100+ men and women from UW Facilities Services who keep the Allen Center looking great and working great!

Thanks for all you do!




December 28, 2017

UW programmers are among the best in the west at regional ACM competition

ACM ICPC logoLast month, six teams of students from the University of Washington put their programming skills to the test in the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Competition (ICPC). Three of those teams placed among the top 10 in the region — demonstrating that when it comes to computer programming, UW students are among the best in the west.

The road to the competition began in October with a local contest sponsored by Google. A total of 45 teams entered, from which six teams were chosen to represent the UW in Division 1, which also included Stanford, University of British Columbia, University of California, Berkeley, and others. The top-ranked UW team, “May the bugs be with you~,” placed fourth, with fellow UW teams “+1s” and “scottai” coming in fifth and sixth, respectively. The regional competition took place simultaneously across six sites: Puget Sound (including UW), Northeast (Spokane and environs), Northwest (Oregon), Northern California, Hawaii, and Canada.

Principal Lecturer Stuart Reges, who teaches the Allen School’s popular introductory programming courses and served as the teams’ faculty sponsor, was impressed with the strong showing made by the UW students.

“We swept the top five spots out of the 14 teams at the Puget Sound site,” Reges noted. “And we had more teams in the top 10 than any other school in the overall region.”

Members of "May the bugs be with you"

Members of “May the bugs be with you~” at the Puget Sound competition site

Fourth and fifth places at the Puget Sound site went to “WeGods” and “fsociety,” respectively, with the final UW team, “MATLAB Indexers,” coming in seventh. The group of undergraduate and first-year graduate students was coached by Allen School Ph.D. students Daniel Epstein of the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) group and Martin Kellogg of the Programming Languages & Software Engineering (PLSE) group. Kellogg is already looking forward to seeing how the students build on this year’s outcome.

“‘May the bugs be with you~’ was all freshmen, and a freshman and two sophomores were part of ‘+1s,’ ” said Kellogg. “These teams are young, so we’re looking forward to even stronger results in the coming years.”

Way to go, teams! And thanks to Google for supporting UW students!

December 27, 2017

The FLIP Alliance: Diversifying the Computer Science Professoriate

The Paul G. Allen School is proud to be one of 11 leading computer science programs in the FLIP Alliance: Diversifying Future Leadership in the Professoriate.

The problem that we address in the FLIP Alliance is stark and straightforward: only 4.3% of the current tenure-track faculty in computing at research-oriented universities are from underrepresented groups.

The FLIP Alliance approach is equally stark and straightforward: we intentionally bring together the very small number of programs responsible for producing the majority of the professoriate in the field with individuals and organizations that understand how to recruit, retain, and develop students from underrepresented groups, in order to create a network that can quickly and radically change the demographic diversity of the professoriate across the entire field.

The challenge is important because diverse faculty contribute to academia in a number of critical ways:

  • Serve as excellent role models for a diverse study body
  • Bring diverse backgrounds to the student programs and policies.
  • Bring diverse perspectives to research projects and programs.

The FLIP Alliance is funded by an NSF INCLUDES grant awarded in 2017 that provides funding to launch and demonstrate the effectiveness of strategies focused on recruiting and retaining diverse doctoral students at the FLIP institutions.

The Allen School’s partners in the FLIP Alliance are the computer science programs at UC Berkeley, Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University, the University of Illinois, MIT, Princeton University, Stanford University, and the University of Texas.

For further information, contact the Allen School’s FLIP Advocates: Raven Alexander, Elise Dorough, and Ed Lazowska.

December 23, 2017

Professor Steve Seitz, alumni Gail Murphy and Geoff Voelker named Fellows of the ACM

Steve SeitzAllen School professor Steve Seitz and Ph.D. alumni Gail Murphy and Geoffrey Voelker have been named Fellows of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). They are among just 54 computer science educators, researchers and practitioners to be recognized as 2017 Fellows based on their outstanding technical accomplishments and service to the computing community.

“To be selected as a Fellow is to join our most renowned member grade and an elite group,” said ACM President Vicki L. Hanson in a press release. “The Fellows program allows us to shine a light on landmark contributions to computing, as well as the men and women whose tireless efforts, dedication, and inspiration are responsible for groundbreaking work that improves our lives in so many ways.”

Steve Seitz was recognized by the ACM for his “contributions to computer vision and computer graphics.” As a member of the Allen School’s Graphics & Imaging Laboratory (GRAIL), Seitz has made a number of important technical contributions to advance the state of the art in computer graphics and vision and enable new capabilities in augmented and virtual reality. These include DynamicFusion, the first dense simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) system capable of real-time reconstruction of dynamic scenes that feature subjects in motion. The project represented a major leap forward in both SLAM and 3-D reconstruction, earning Seitz and his collaborators — former Allen School postdoc Richard Newcombe and professor Dieter Fox — the Best Paper Award at the 2015 International Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR).

Seitz worked with Allen School Ph.D. alumnus Ricardo Martin Brualla and Google’s David Gallup to pioneer a new method for creating videos from photos. Using a process called time-lapse mining, the team was able to compensate for variations in camera angle and lighting to create videos depicting changes to important ecological and historical sites over time. In addition, Seitz has contributed to a line of research spearheaded by Ph.D. alumnus Supasorn Suwajanakorn and professor Ira Kemelmacher-Shlizerman aimed at developing new tools for creating realistic digital personas, including total moving face reconstruction, creation of 3-D digital personas, and photorealistic audio-to-video conversion.

“I’m really excited about the field of virtual and augmented reality and putting a lot of my energy into this area,” Seitz said. “I mean, how often do you get a chance to help define the next computing platform?”

Seitz is particularly excited about inspiring students in this burgeoning field. He and Kemelmacher-Shlizerman developed the curriculum for the Allen School’s Virtual and Augmented Reality Capstone to give students a chance to experiment with the latest technology and software. Students in the course worked in teams to build a variety of apps, from holographic chess, to virtual painting, to cooking and music lessons.

Seitz splits his time between the Allen School and Google Seattle, where he leads a 3-D vision team responsible for developing the Google Jump professional VR video system and Cardboard Camera, which turns an Android smartphone into a virtual reality device to bring VR to the masses. His enthusiasm for using virtual reality as a means of transporting people somewhere they are not earned him the title “teleportation director.”

In a way, his recent recognition from the ACM has transported Seitz back in time; the news of his selection has enabled him to reconnect with people who have been important throughout his career.

“The best part is getting these warm emails from so many friends and colleagues that I’ve worked with over the years,” he said.

Seitz is the 21st Allen School faculty member to be named a Fellow of the ACM. He is joined in the class of 2017 by Allen School alumni Gail Murphy (Ph.D., ‘96) and Geoffrey Voelker (Ph.D., ‘00).

Gail MurphyMurphy is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Vice President for Research & Innovation at the University of British Columbia. She was recognized by the ACM for “contributions to recommenders for software engineering and to program comprehension.”

Murphy has devoted her research career to helping software developers and other knowledge workers to work smarter and better, inspired by her own experience as a software developer before she came to the University of Washington to earn her Ph.D. working with the late David Notkin. To that end, she and her team at UBC study how software is developed and design and evaluate tools for developers to manage large, complex software systems. Murphy’s approach has been described as one that puts people first and tools second. It is an ethos she put into practice at Tasktop Technologies, a company she co-founded a decade ago with Ph.D. student Mik Kersten and researcher Rob Elves. Together, they set out to streamline software development and delivery at the enterprise level through a suite of integrated tools for enhancing communication and collaboration.

“A big challenge today is connecting the people involved in large software developments,” Murphy explained when she was recognized with the Allen School’s Alumni Achievement Award in 2014. “When people are not connected, software development lags and problems get introduced into the software.”

Voelker completed his Ph.D. working with professors Anna Karlin and Hank Levy before joining the faculty of the University of California, San Diego, where he is a member of the Systems & Networking and Security & Cryptography research groups. He was selected as an ACM Fellow based on his “contributions to empirical measurement and analysis in systems, networking and security.”

Geoff VoelkerFor one of his early contributions, Voelker collaborated with another Allen School alumnus, Stefan Savage, and Ph.D. student David Moore on a study of denial-of-service attacks — the process by which attackers overload servers connected to the internet with messages. The team’s work, which represented the first time anyone had publicly measured the extent of DoS activity on the internet, earned the Best Paper Award at the 2001 USENIX Security Symposium. The enduring relevance of Voelker’s and his colleagues’ research to the field of network security was recognized with the USENIX Test of Time Award earlier this year.

Since that pioneering research, Voelker has made contributions in a variety of areas, including cellular networks, machine virtualization, cloud storage, and cybercrime. Roughly a decade after the landmark DoS study, Voelker worked with Savage and a group of colleagues at UCSD, University of California, Berkeley, the International Computer Science Institute, and the Budapest University of Technology and Economics on an ambitious project to map the spam value chain. Voelker and his colleagues discovered that 95 percent of spam-advertised pharmaceutical and software purchases are funneled through just a handful of banks and credit card processors — a bottleneck that could be used by financial institutions and regulators to shut spammers down.

With more than 100,000 members worldwide, the ACM is the world’s largest computing society devoted to advancing computing’s technical, educational, and social impact. Fellows are selected by their peers and represent the top one percent of ACM’s overall membership.

Read the ACM’s announcement here, and view the full list of 2017 Fellows here.

Congratulations to Steve, Gail, and Geoff on this well-deserved recognition!


December 15, 2017

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

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