uc davis computer science popl student research competition
Sotoudeh (left) and Thakur (right) in front of Sotoudeh’s poster at the 2020 International Symposium on Principles of Programming Languages (POPL) in New Orleans. Photo courtesy of Aditya Thakur.

Computer Science Undergraduate Matthew Sotoudeh Wins Silver Medal in POPL Student Research Competition

Third-year computer science undergraduate Matthew Sotoudeh placed second in an undergraduate student research competition at the 2020 International Symposium on Principles of Programming Language (POPL). Sotoudeh, part of assistant professor Aditya Thakur’s lab, presented his poster and gave an oral presentation at the top programming languages conference from January 19-25 in New Orleans.

His paper, “Bounded Model Checking of Deep Neural Network Controllers,” is part of an ongoing project to apply principles of programming languages to neural network systems to guarantee they don’t crash.

Neural networks are a type of computer system inspired by the brain that are often used in autonomous vehicles like drones and self-driving cars. They rely on interconnected elements that dynamically respond to external inputs such as road conditions, obstacles and traffic signs, for example. Ensuring safety is increasingly important as these autonomous vehicles become more prevalent on busy streets and airspace.

Though neural networks are much more complicated than normal software systems, Sotoudeh can still view them as a type of program and run a traditional analysis on them.

"Neural networks are an interesting technical challenge," he said. "Figuring out how to redesign these analyses to work at the scale of these new types of programs was very challenging."

Sotoudeh was first introduced to programming languages during a summer internship at Intel and sought out a research opportunity with Thakur the next fall. Sotoudeh and Thakur have been working together since December 2018 and have already published multiple papers, including one they presented at the prestigious Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) conference last fall in Vancouver. The POPL paper is another step in the ongoing research, with more publications and studies in the works.

Sotoudeh was selected by conference panelists to attend the conference and present his poster after a successful online submission. The top three researchers in the poster session were then invited to give an oral presentation.

For winning second place, Sotoudeh received $300 and was awarded a certificate and a medal for his efforts, along with a complimentary student membership to the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). He hopes to take the recognition and experience with him as he continues his research in Thakur’s lab and prepares for graduate school.

“To me, it’s a joy to see a researcher like Matthew grow,” said Thakur. “Preparing for and giving the presentation and refining how he should talk about his research to different people is a great experience for him.”

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