Computer Science departments welcome five new faculty members

U of T hopes to advance robotics research

Computer Science departments welcome five new faculty members

Five new faculty members were appointed to U of T’s Computer Science departments for the 2018–2019 academic year, as the university moves to increase its commitment to computer science research, particularly in robotics.

The researchers come from a variety of backgrounds and have diverse research interests that encompass fields like robotics, machine learning, human-robot interaction, and parallel algorithms.

Dr. Animesh Garg, one of the new Assistant Professors in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM, was previously a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University.

In an email interview with The Varsity, Garg wrote that he chose to accept a position at U of T in part because of collaborations with industry leaders such as Google, NVIDIA, and Uber.

“The opportunity to work in such a dynamic environment composed of academic leaders, industrial partners and most of all inspiring students made for a great combination for a young academic such as myself to establish a thriving research lab,” continued Garg.

His research focuses on the fields of generalizable autonomy for robotics and “involves an integration of perception, machine learning and control in the real world.”

Dr. Maryam Mehri Dehnavi, a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science hailing from Rutgers University, wrote in an email to The Varsity that she was drawn to U of T because of its stellar academic environment and the city.

Dehnavi also pointed to the department’s focus beyond “just current trendy areas” and its investment in long-term research.

“We aim to significantly improve the performance of large-scale data-intensive problems on parallel and cloud computing platforms by building high-performance frameworks,: said Dehnavi on her research. “To build these frameworks we formulate scalable mathematical methods and develop domain-specific compilers and programming languages.”

Dr. Joseph Jay Williams is also a new Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science, previously from the National University of Singapore.

In an interview with The Varsity, he said that he is excited to join U of T due to the unique position he was offered in doing research that “applies computer science techniques to educational research.” In particular, Williams is excited to work on cross-disciplinary collaborations, such as with the Department of Psychology and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Williams’ research focuses on creating “intelligent self-improving systems that conduct dynamic experiments to discover how to optimize and personalize technology, helping people learn new concepts and change habitual behavior.”

In the future, Williams hopes to conduct randomized A/B experiments with practical applications in health and education.

Dr. Florian Shkurti will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM coming from McGill University. Shkurti was drawn to U of T due to its “longstanding tradition of excellence” in areas like robotics, machine learning, computer vision, and various engineering subfields.

One of Shkurti’s research projects works on robot control systems that enable robots to work alongside scientists to explore underwater environments.

“In the future, I am planning to dedicate my research efforts to creating algorithms that learn useful abstractions and representations from large sources of unsupervised visual data,” said Shkurti.

Dr. Jessica Burgner-Kahrs from Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany will join the Department of Mathematical and Computational Sciences at UTM as an Associate Professor.

According to Burgner-Kahrs, her research interests are in robotics, particularly in small-scale continuum robotics and human-robot interactions. She will be joining the faculty in Spring 2019.

Through its appointment of research-focused faculty, the university hopes to expand its research frontiers in computer science beyond traditional areas.

U of T student part of winning Microsoft Imagine Cup team

Samin Khan and Hamayal Choudhry were among 49 teams to advance to the World Finals in Seattle

U of T student part of winning Microsoft Imagine Cup team

Microsoft hosted its first Imagine Cup in 2003. The international competition, now in its 16th year, challenges student tech developers to use Microsoft’s cloud-based technologies to address global problems.

This year, two Canadians won the Cup: Samin Khan, a fourth-year at University College pursuing a double major in Computer Science and Cognitive Science with a minor in Psychology, and Hamayal Choudhry, a third-year at University of Ontario Institute of Technology studying Mechatronics Engineering. In July, Khan and Choudhry were one of 49 teams to advance to the 2018 Imagine Cup World Finals in Seattle.

The pair’s winning project was smartARM, a 3D-printed robotic prosthetic hand designed to be highly functional and affordable at an estimated cost of $100. smartARM operates in a three-step process: First, a camera embedded in the palm of smartARM senses the shape of an unfamiliar object. A Raspberry Pi analyzes the shape’s data and calculates the kind of grip required to grasp it. Second, a machine learning algorithm powered by Microsoft Azure improves the grip each time the device is used. Last, this information is stored on the Microsoft cloud so the user can switch to another smartARM and retain functionality.

Khan and Choudhry won a mentoring session with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, a $50,000 Microsoft Azure grant, and $85,000 in cash prizes.

The Varsity had the opportunity to sit down with Khan and talk about his team’s win.

The Varsity: How did you hear about the Imagine Cup?

Samin Khan: I heard about it at UofTHacks it’s a hackathon run by U of T and there were sponsors there for each of the companies. So, Microsoft actually had a few sponsors… and after we won the Microsoft API award, they told us about the Imagine Cup.

TV: How did you meet your partner Hamayal Choudhry?

SK: We actually met in middle school. He was a year younger than me; we didn’t know each other too well. We split off into different high schools we hadn’t seen each other in four, five, six years. We just happened to run into each other at UofTHacks… We started exchanging philosophies that we had for the tech industry. We were tired of seeing innovation that was so focused on making the next cell phone slimmer or the next car more sleek we were thinking that this is not really focusing on impacting the lives of people… Neither of us came into the competition with an idea nor a team, and based on that conversation, I think we realized we had to put something together. And it was all history from there.

TV: What is it that makes smartARM so novel as a prosthetic?

SK: What we noticed is that within the prosthetics industry, there’s a big divide between the products. On one hand you have ‘cosmetic’ prosthetics: these are going to be pretty cheap, they’re affordable, they’re [less than] $1,000. However, they don’t provide much motor functionality, like fingers, so you can’t actually grasp objects.

On the other hand, you’re going to have these very complex robotic arms. You’ll find that these arms all immediately go up to tens of thousands of dollars. The main reason for that is they are striving for that functionality, and what that requires is a lot of complex neuro-muscular interfacing with the myoelectric sensors.

What smartARM leverages is that, by using computer vision to automate some of that grasping processing, it limits the amount of myoelectric sensor usage. The costs are under $100 and all we have are these very simple motors and this onboard Raspberry Pi. We’re able to get a good bit of functionality.

TV: Were there any experiences at U of T that helped you design smartARM?

SK: Definitely. I mean I started programming not so long ago; I only really started in second year. I really feel that once you know the fundamentals of programming, there’s a lot you can do. Based on just those introductory courses like Intro to [Computer] Programming where you first learn Python, for instance just having the basics of being able to manipulate integers and strings, this basic kind of algorithmic way of thinking. Honestly, that got us started when we were using object recognition to turn images into strings and those into grips.

What also really helped was that I volunteered for some computer science research opportunities within U of T. Last semester, I was working with Professor Yang Xu he’s in the Department of Computer Science and also Cognitive Science, which is what I’m in. I started to get comfortable learning some of the basics of machine learning libraries.

TV: What advice do you have for anyone who might be interested in pursuing a similar tech venture such as yourself, but is unsure of where to start?

SK: Just starting conversations with people in computer science, or people who have some programming experience, or who have worked in industry, or research, or started their own company. And having that vision for yourself, and not being afraid of working with programmers, and trying to get any experience, even if you haven’t had any it would be great to just get a footing in it. I would highly recommend learning the fundamentals of Python, for instance, or learning the fundamentals of some machine learning library.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Khan has offered to speak to anyone who may be interested in pursuing a tech venture. He can be reached at samin.khan@mail.utoronto.ca.

The dysfunctional Computer Science Student Union suffers from institutional failure

With constitutional bylaws ignored and events not hosted, the union is in grave need of improvement

The dysfunctional Computer Science Student Union suffers from institutional failure

The Computer Science Student Union (CSSU) has failed in its duty to adequately represent students in the Computer Science program. Like other course unions and student organizations, the CSSU is responsible for organizing events and providing services to its members. However, this year the CSSU has been complacent in its duties, and has demonstrated gross negligence in following proper rules and regulations.

Events originally proposed by the CSSU, like careers fairs, academic seminars, and tea time with professors never happened. Only six out of 18 events listed on the budget proposal from the beginning of the year occurred. Fortunately, other campus Computer Science groups, like Undergraduate Women in Computer Science, were able to fill the role of hosting tea time with professors and weekly technical interview preps throughout the year.

But it wasn’t always like this. Just last year, the CSSU gained positive attention for hosting a successful first Hack Night at the beginning of the school year with generous sponsorship from both Google and the Department of Computer Science. The CSSU would go on to host four Hack Night events in total that year. Only one was hosted this year.

The CSSU also has trouble following its own rules. The CSSU Constitution mandates that at least one General Meeting must be held per academic semester while classes are in session, with at least two weeks notice given prior to each meeting. This year, no such meetings have been called in either semester. With fewer than two weeks of classes left, there won’t be enough time to host a meeting, and Computer Science students won’t have the chance to voice their opinions.

Disregarding rules and procedures comes with consequences. In the upcoming CSSU election, procedures were initially ignored. According to the Chief Returning Officer (CRO), Christina Chen, the current CSSU president, Hanchen Wang, changed elections procedures in order to permit an online voting system in lieu of a physical ballot system.

Yet, the executives are not allowed to unilaterally make changes to the election process without amending the constitution first — which is impossible at the moment, as no general meetings have been held. After a complaint was filed to the Arts & Science Students’ Union, the CRO corrected the election process so that it followed previous procedures.

This kind of behaviour is not surprising from the CSSU. Already, some Computer Science students see the CSSU as an exclusionary group, or clique consisting of select upper-year students. Students, intimidated by this behaviour, hesitate to hang out in the CSSU student lounge, and conversations within the lounge often consist of language that can be off-putting or uncomfortable for others. The CSSU’s lack of female representation is especially concerning, as there are virtually no women within the group who regularly use the space.

Past and present members alike are unhappy with the current state of the CSSU, with many fearing its demise. Such concerns are not unjustified, as the CSSU has not appointed any first-year representatives this year; these positions are informally used to ensure the continuation of student organizations for future students.

Former CSSU president Jonathan Webb is especially frustrated, saying “The CSSU is actively failing and is not doing its job at all and hasn’t even pretended to try all year.”

Responsible CSSU executives are becoming increasingly necessary since Computer Science is becoming a more popular subject at U of T and elsewhere. The university’s Department of Computer Science is presently experiencing a significant increase in enrolment for both computer science courses and programs. Historically, similar enrolment booms occurred during the late 1980s and the dot-com boom — and with each boom, the percentage of women and minority representation in the field decreased.

In light of the contemporary enrolment boom in Computer Science and its current issues, it is extremely important that the CSSU properly dedicate its efforts and resources to promoting inclusivity and diversity, actually hosting events, and making the CSSU student lounge an environment that is less unwelcoming for students that do not regularly use the space.

 

Charles Huang is a third-year student at University College studying Computer Science and Mathematics. He is running for president of the Computer Science Student Union. 

Student programmers announced as semi-finalists in coding competition

Two U of T undergrads selected as lone representatives from Canada in the 2015 Pearson Coding Competition

Student programmers announced as semi-finalists in coding competition

Everyone learns differently; while some benefit primarily from a visual education, others get more out of listening to information. Increasingly, learning methods are expanding with online videos, books, and applications that make education more accessible. In order to foster the creation of more online learning tools, UK-based educational publisher Pearson Education launched their third annual Pearson Student Coding Contest last September. 

The contest is designed for undergraduate students in the United States and Canada to create applications that help students learn.

This year, two undergraduate students from the University of Toronto, Christopher Goldsworthy and Farhan Samir are the only competitors from Canada to make it into the semi-final round of the competition, along with 19 others from the US. Contestants first pitched their ideas in September by creating a proposal that was judged by a team of industry experts before developing their applications. Winners of the contest will be awarded in February with cash prizes and a chance to intern at Pearson Education. The goal is to integrate the Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), tools that can be used for building software to construct educational apps that are functional and novel.

The Varsity reached one of the U of T semi-finalists in the competition, Christopher Goldsworthy, for an interview. Goldsworthy, a second–year computer science student, created the application HandUp.

Goldsworthy was inspired by an application called Memrise, where users can engage in vocabulary memorization exercises and are awarded points for their performance. HandUp has two main functions: first, to take and share lecture notes, and second, to get more students to study in groups.

Students are awarded points for studying together, creating a fun incentive to learn and a simple online platform for interaction. Points are also awarded based on the quality of the students’ notes. These notes will be compared to other users’ notes, using a program that compares key words. An average selection of key words will be found and as long as the students’ notes are similar to the average, they will be awarded points in the application. Using Bluetooth, the app can also connect different users and their friends in the same class.

With regards to the coding competition, Goldsworthy says his goal is to “develop more of a vocational skill of software development. As long as I make something of professional quality which is usable, I will be satisfied.”

Goldsworthy says it was stressful to balance working on the application with exams, but he plans to complete and perfect the app by the end of January. For now, he is content with the experience he has had with the competition.

When asked for advice to give individuals interested in developing software or going into computer science, he says, “first they should learn a programing language, preferably Java or Python. I recommend Java because of Android. It’s a very simple platform to develop for. Really you just need to have motivation and drive to develop something.”

For the future, Goldsworthy is interested in moving forward to explore projects involving machine learning and visual computing.