Two faculty members receive Amazon Research Awards


By Sarah Small

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State faculty members James Wang, professor of information sciences and technology, and Rui Zhang, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, each received a 2020 Amazon Research Award, which was announced publicly in April of this year.

Amazon Research Awards provides unrestricted funds and Amazon Web Services (AWS) Promotional Credits to academic researchers for one of the following five topics: Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Information Security; Alexa Fairness in AI; AWS AI; AWS Automated Reasoning; and Robotics, according to the Amazon Science press release.

“[This award] is a great honor for me,” said Wang, who was the first Penn State researcher to earn this award in 2018. He and Xinyu Xing, assistant professor of information sciences and technology, were each selected for a 2019 Amazon Research Award, making this Wang’s third consecutive year as a recipient.

The funding — $80,000, plus AWS credits of $20,000 a year — will support Wang’s project, “Affective and Social Interaction between Human and Intelligent Machine,” which aims to advance understanding of people’s emotional expressions from their body language using an interdisciplinary approach crossing computing, statistical learning and movement analysis.

“This award recognizes Penn State's research at the intersection of robotics and affective computing, which I believe is an area of growing importance as intelligent machines integrate into our daily life,” he said. “The generous funds will support our efforts to continue to pursue fundamental research that has the potential to positively impact millions of people.”

Zhang will use his funding — $45,000, plus $75,000 in AWS credits — for his project, “Building Robust Conversational Question Answering Systems over Databases of Tabular Data,” to work toward making it possible for people to have more human-like conversations with databases.

“The system [we are working on] offers both convenience and security, because the user does not need technical proficiency in writing Structured Query Language, and the system does not expose the database schema to customers, clients or untrusted third parties,” Zhang said.

Zhang said that this system will differ from previous systems in that it will be more conversational and interactive and will be more verifiable.

“Our ultimate goal is to achieve data democratization by making digital information accessible to the average non-technical users, and AI democratization by building linguistic user interfaces where natural language can be used to program AI systems,” he said.

Zhang’s research areas are natural language processing and machine learning with focuses on interactive and executable semantic parsing, text summarization, cross-lingual information retrieval and open-domain data-to-text generation. He frequently publishes and serves as a program committee member for several professional organizations. He received bachelor’s degrees from both Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the University of Michigan and received his doctorate from Yale University in 2020. During his doctoral program, he held research internships at IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Grammarly Research and Google AI.

Wang’s research interests include biomedical imaging informatics, computational psychology, meteorology big data, visual art and fundamental explainable learning methods. He received a bachelor’s degree in math and computer science from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, master’s degrees in math and in computer science from Stanford and a doctorate degree in medical information sciences from Stanford. He also received a National Science Foundation Career award in 2004 and the endowed PNC Technologies Career Development Professorship in 2000. He has served as the lead guest editor of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Transactions on Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence Special Section on Real-world Image Annotation and Retrieval, the general chair of Association of Computing Machinery Multimedia Information Retrieval events and as an invited speaker at more than 110 institutions.


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