UI Chicago computer-science prof from Urbana wins $500,000 award

UI Chicago computer-science prof from Urbana wins $500,000 award

Urbana High School graduate Brian Ziebart, now an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Illinois Chicago, has received a $500,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award, the agency's top award for young researchers.

The award will go toward his research to develop better computer algorithms that could make autonomous vehicles safer and improve other applications in health care, financial market stability and safety, according to a UI release.

Ziebart works on "structured prediction tasks" — those that require the joint prediction of many related variables. For example, an autonomous vehicle's lane-change decision may depend on its estimates for position and velocity of nearby vehicles, road conditions and other potential obstacles.

Such a vehicle, Ziebart said, is trying to generalize from limited previous experience for machine learning, similar to the way Amazon's "Alexa" seeks to quickly learn its users' intentions and preferences.

"One way to do it is to make worst-case assumptions about what you don't know," he said.

His team uses optimization theory, in which the computer compares solutions until a satisfactory outcome is found. They also use game theory to construct "prediction paths" to make it efficient for real-time applications, he said.

After graduating from Urbana High in 2004, Ziebart received his undergraduate degree in computer engineering with highest honors from the UI's Urbana campus. He then earned a master's degree in machine learning and a doctorate in knowledge discovery and data mining from Carnegie Mellon University. After postdoctoral research at Carnegie Mellon's Human-Computer Interaction Institute and Robotics Institute he joined the UI Chicago computer science faculty in 2012.