Computer Science Faculty Receive Google Research Scholar Awards

Friday, April 16, 2021
Three junior faculty in the Computer Science Department at UC Santa Barbara have received 2020-21 Google Research Scholar Awards, continuing a steady stream of accolades for assistant professors in the department. The Google research program supports early-career professors whose cutting-edge research will impact how future generations use technology. Misha Sra, Yu-Xiang Wang, and Yu Feng will each receive up to $60,000 to support their research projects, which range from designing game controllers for quadriplegic individuals to improving the privacy and security of software and computer systems. 
Feng, who joined the UCSB faculty in 2019, has worked on Android security with the Google Play Protect team since he was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. Through this research award, he will continue his partnership with Google working to improve the security and efficiency of Android apps. Feng’s project introduces a novel goal-driven exploit generation framework that automatically creates a sequence of events on the graphical user interface (GUI) in order to maximize the chances of accomplishing a specific task. The GUI allows users to interact with electronic devices through graphic icons and commands, such as icons and windows. 
“This award means a lot to me because as a junior faculty member, I am always focused on solving problems that could eliminate issues in industry and benefit society,” said Feng, whose research combines program synthesis and analysis with machine learning to tackle practical problems in mobile devices, systems, and data science. “In the short term, we will dramatically reduce the manual effort required by Google to vet Android malware. In the long term, the concept of goal-driven synthesis could be applied to ensure the robustness of various safety-critical software.” 
Google selected Sra to explore the design of a hands-free video game controller for quadriplegic individuals, who are unable to use traditional input devices like a keyboard, mouse, or game controller. Sra’s novel input system processes live webcam data to recognize facial expressions, which are then mapped onto a game character’s actions. For example, smiling makes a character move forward, and frowning makes it stop. Sra believes her system can provide a simple and easy alternative to the mouth-based controllers that are currently on the market.
“The recognition is exciting and motivating — a reminder that the work we do in my lab matters. I hope to use the energy this recognition has given me to continue pushing for advances in our research theme of AI for Good,” said Sra, who joined the UCSB faculty in 2019. “Our work has the potential to enable and empower people to participate in and enjoy the incredible adventures and opportunities that video games can provide. The awarded work also demonstrates how we can use new and upcoming technologies like AI to make a difference in people’s lives.”
While the research award will support Sra’s work of the future, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering’s Visualization and Graphics Technical Committee (IEEE VGTC) recognized her past work. She received the IEEE VGTC Virtual Reality (VR) Best Dissertation Award for her PhD research in the Fluid Interfaces Group at the MIT Media Lab under the direction of Professor Pattie Maes. In that work, she explored the different ways of integrating affordances, such as the walkability of a hallway, from the real world into the virtual through the design of a two-part model and a four-dimensional framework. Her projects demonstrated how adding physical space, the user’s physiology, and social interactions can increase the user’s sense of presence of VR. 
Google selected Wang to support his work on differential privacy (DP), a powerful tool for publicly sharing information from a dataset while withholding information about individuals in the database. The idea behind DP is that anything an algorithm might output from a dataset containing an individual’s information is just as likely to have come from a database that does not include that specific individual’s information. Google uses DP to learn about its user community without learning about individuals in the community. Wang says Google’s support will allow him to expand an open-source project that he started two years ago called autodp. The platform makes differential privacy tools available to everyone, especially software developers who need to build applications that satisfy DP.  
“With the award, we hope to make autodp more powerful, reliable, and accessible,” said Wang, who also received a prestigious Early CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support his DP research. “The endorsement and upcoming collaboration will bring the expertise and mentorship of Google researchers and developers, as well as the opportunity to use autodp for real-life use cases at an industry scale.”
Two additional assistant professors of computer science have received NSF Early CAREER awards this academic year. The prestigious award comes with $500,000 in funding over five years to support innovative research projects. Yufei Ding was selected to pursue her plan to improve the efficiency and accuracy of quantum applications in the next generation of quantum devices. William Wang received a CAREER award to create more robust deep learning-based natural language generation models. He was also selected as a recipient of “The Future of AI: AI’s 10 to Watch” award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE) Intelligent Systems for his “contributions involving a hybrid mix of probabilistic programming, deep learning and natural language processing with applications to fake news.”
Tevfik Bultan, chair of the Computer Science Department, says that the recent wave of honors and recognition for assistant professors shows the strength and overall depth of expertise within the department’s faculty. 
“I congratulate our outstanding junior faculty on receiving these prestigious awards,” said Bultan. “The funding provided through these awards helps our young faculty advance their exciting research in emerging areas like quantum computing, natural language processing, machine learning, perceptual engineering, privacy, and security. Their cutting-edge work is key to our department’s success in leading computer science research at the highest level of innovation.”

Three computer science assistant professors have received Google Research Scholar Awards, (left to right) Yu Feng, Misha Sra, Yu-Xiang Wang