On February 15, the global computing community celebrated the 75th anniversary of the launch of “Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer,” or ENIAC for short. The machine, unveiled here at Penn in 1946, was the world’s first all-electronic, programmable computer.
CIS RCA Professor of Artificial Intelligence Emeritus Mitch Marcus fittingly opened his “History of ENIAC” webinar with a classic lecture ritual.
“I thought that, because I was a professor, I would give you guys a pop quiz,” said Prof. Marcus. “The nice thing is that it doesn’t get graded.”
He asked of attendees via multiple choice: 1. How long was the ENIAC, 2. What was ENIAC’s total memory, and 3. What was the first program to run on ENIAC? Prof. Marcus not only provided the audience with the answers (1. About the size of a blue whale, 2. 20, 10-bit numbers, and 3. atomic bomb simulation), but went on to give a concise background of the legendary machine, from inspiration to execution.
First-year CIS PhD student Alyssa Hwang was yearning for a bit of connection when she decided a Valentine’s Day celebration was in order.
“I kind of wanted an excuse to have a party and get together with everyone,” said Hwang. “I like having these big get-togethers on Zoom because it’s fun and I also get to meet people.”
Alyssa came aboard the CIS team in September of last year, and as such, has not had the opportunity to meet many of her peers in person. She teamed up with fifth-year CIS PhD student Omar Navarro Leija to spread a little Valentine’s Day cheer.
“Omar really helped a lot with the organization of the party,” said Hwang. “And I helped out with the game, because there was a really fun game I wanted to play with everyone.
The game, called Fake Artist, is popular within the relatively new realm of e-meetings and e-meetups. Alyssa likens it to other popular whodunit-type games such as Among Us and Spyfall, except with drawing.
Unfortunately, great games and company aren’t always enough to lure people to the party.
As part of the organizing duties, Omar felt it was a good idea to add some appealing incentives. They decided to give everyone $15 Grubhub vouchers, and also raffled off 10 VISA gift cards. On the CIS dime, of course.
“We used to have this weekly free food and beer event. It used to feed 75-90 people,” said Leija, of the CIS PhD TGIF gatherings that used to take place pre-pandemic. “That’s one of the reasons I don’t mind asking the department for money.”
Still, Alyssa and Omar are hoping that the word will spread throughout the department: the more the merrier.
“We have an entire Doctoral association of students dedicated to making these things happen,” said Hwang. “I wish people would tell us that they like things or what they want to see because we’re excited to do more.”
Professor Sharath Guntuku has not only been deepening his photography skills while working from home this past year, he’s also been reading a whole lot. Of Malcolm Gladwell, specifically.
“I’m really amazed by how he uses data to tell stories,” said Sharath. “That makes a lot of sense to me.”
Although he’s worked with UPenn as early as 2017, Sharath was brought onboard the CIS team as a Research Assistant Professor in May 2020. According to him, one of the most appealing and challenging aspects of the Penn CIS program is its lush interdisciplinary environment.
“I think access to experts in public health, experts in psychology, experts in psychiatry – I think it’s one of the few places in the US where we have this,” said Sharath.
And it is in these fields, most notably public health and psychology, that the points of Professor Guntuku’s research meld together. With regards to public health, he has been utilizing large scale social media data sets to track well-being over time.
“March 2020 had been really drastic in terms of how much people stopped moving,” said Sharath. “An average person in Philadelphia was moving about 2 miles a day before March 2020. And after March 2020, that reduced to…just the apartment.”
Various state and local governments, as well as Sharath and his research team, were curious about the effects that substantially less physical movement would have on mental health. Surveying, however, was too costly and time-consuming. So Sharath and his team turned to Twitter data.
“We were interested in using more real-time sources to track this more seamlessly,” said Sharath. “We looked at what people are saying in different counties, [and how] that reflected how they’re feeling. We started sharing this with 3 different state departments: Washington state, Pennsylvania and Colorado.”
While studying Twitter data is less expensive and requires less time than surveys, this method isn’t without its own technical difficulties.
“There are technical challenges in terms of how representative Twitter is because not everyone is on Twitter,” said Sharath. “It’s a skewed demographic, so how do you correct for it? It’s mostly building algorithms that can be effective in a public health space.”
Another public health project that Sharath is working on involves identifying concerns that people have whenever public health emergencies occur. Many folks have reasons to doubt the public health info that’s widely available. Sharath cites the country’s mishandling of racial justice, and the contradicting mask advice that circulated early in the pandemic, as just a few examples.
“We’re looking at how we can use social media data to identify concerns that are very specific to local populations, and how we can tailor public health campaigns to address those concerns,” said Sharath.
That’s where the interdisciplinary nature of this work becomes crucial.
“I, as a computer scientist, don’t really know what messaging or communications are effective,” said Sharath. “But that’s why I work with people in Annenberg or say, Penn Medicine: to tell me what makes sense to the end user. My role here is to address challenges in developing algorithms that don’t propagate bias, but that give a reasonable presentation of what people are concerned about.”
Upon first meeting Professor Lyle Ungar and learning that at Penn, computer scientists, sociologists and psychologists often band together to work through solutions, Sharath was blown away.
“This has been sort of revolutionary for me because I did my graduate studies in Singapore,” said Sharath. “It was a pretty good school, but the level of interdisciplinary activity at Penn is at a completely different level.”
When asked what he was most looking forward to as a part of the CIS community, Sharath responded:
“I’m really excited about this intersection, how we build algorithms that actually have an impact, and how we can work with students that are interested in this intersection.”
“What bar in the world has a bunch of nerds hanging out and doing stuff on whiteboards?” CIS Senior Lecturer and MCIT Director Arvind Bhusnurmath poses this as a rhetorical question.
The short answer is, one co-created by Bhusnurmath himself, and MCIT Program Coordinator Redian Furxhiu.
The MCIT Bar is a digital drink hole, of course, created within the CIS microcosm on the Gather.town platform. It features a snazzy night sky setting outside the windows (lest one need to comfort oneself for indulging in a 2PM e-drink) and program preset seating arrangements where each table serves as placings for private conversations.
While Bhusnurmath uses Gather.town primarily for office hours, the e-bar has allowed MCIT students and faculty to interact and socialize on a less regulated level. He believes that the student queue outside of his digital office doesn’t function as well as the real deal.
“The part that’s missing? I’m not sure if they’re talking to each other while in the line,” says Bhusnurmath of the usual hubbub and informal info passing that occurs during office hours.
So, the MCIT Bar provides a space where students and faculty can meet with the intent to connect socially over academic interests. Although whiteboard features like the one in Gather.town do exist on Zoom and other platforms, the one in Gather.town seems to encourage an easier flow of natural communication, that for Professor Arvind, more closely mimics the use of an actual whiteboard in an actual classroom.
The whiteboards, Bhusnurmath’s personal design addition, play a key part in the various events hosted at the bar, notably the MCIT 2021 Winter Hackathon that took place a few weeks ago.
“Students hung out, people presented their projects, we had like a little awards ceremony,” says Professor Arvind.
Prizes included an award for most complex, most creative, most beneficial to MCIT and an overall presentation winner.
MCIT has also hosted alum mock interviews at the bar, where alumni come visit and put MCIT students on the hypothetical spot.
Even with interactive game table features, where students and faculty can enjoy a game of poker or pool, Bhusnurmath isn’t certain how much extracurricular use the bar gets outside of specific department events. He notes one time he popped in to curiously observe.
“There were a bunch of the kids who were at a couple of those tables,” says Professor Arvind. “It was just cool to see that they seemed to be working together. I think the best thing we can do during this pandemic is to say that ‘these are the things that are there,’ if someone wants to use them, they can.”