100 Ways: Arts & Letters


Published May 10, 2019 3:20 PM

Metal Heads

Artificial Intelligence

Xu Xie M.S. ’17 is a Ph.D. student in the Statistics Department and a member of Professor Song-Chun Zhu’s research group.

AI — or machine learning, or robots, or androids — is not just the stuff of science-fiction tropes like War Games or 2001. We’re talking Siri. And Alexa. Watson. Your web search engine.

And from the beginning, UCLA thinkers have been in the vanguard of the field.

Any exploration of Bruin contributions to AI must begin with Computer Science Professor Judea Pearl. In 2011, Pearl won the A.M. Turing Award, the “Nobel Prize” of computer science, for his “fundamental contributions to artificial intelligence.”

Before Pearl, AI systems could understand “true” or “false,” but not “maybe.” Pearl developed what he called a network that mimics the neural activities of the human brain — breaking up impossibly large numbers of variables into smaller chunks of interrelated ones. The concept has spawned innovation in medical diagnosis and gene mapping, credit-card fraud detection, homeland security, speech recognition systems and Google searches.

The UCLA faculty’s role in the development of AI can be traced to the field’s roots. Alan Turing, the father of computer science, was a student of Alonzo Church, a mathematician and philosopher on the UCLA faculty from 1967 to 1990. The Church-Turing thesis — which is that any function that can be sufficiently described as an algorithm can be performed by a machine — is the intellectual heart of AI.

In 1972, two years before he joined the UCLA faculty, psychiatrist Kenneth Colby developed PARRY, a computer program that mimicked a paranoid schizophrenic in typed conversation, for use as a psychiatry training tool. Two decades later, Charles Taylor, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was part of a group that was instrumental in developing machines with lifelike properties, including the ability to learn and evolve.

Today’s visionary UCLA faculty include Michael Dyer, professor of computer science, who is a leader in the language-processing field. Professor of Statistics and Computer Science Song-Chun Zhu’s UCLA Center for Vision, Cognition, Learning and Autonomy uses natural language processing to train computers to understand human text and language. Computer Science Professor Richard Korf studies heuristics, or combinatorial optimization — finding efficient algorithms for problems so large that an exhaustive search is impossible.

And of course, 2001’s HAL was a Bruin.

Just kidding. He was self-taught.

Sidewalk Sanctuaries


In 2011, a $100-million-dollar gift from Renee ’53 and Meyer ’49 Luskin enabled the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs to take a new look at public domains. The question posed: “How can the actions of today improve our future relationships with issues such as health care, education, transportation, housing and crime?”

One place on which the study focused was the sidewalks of Los Angeles.

Students at the Luskin School of Public Affairs helped create parklets in downtown Los Angeles — small spaces furnished with exercise equipment and seating areas.

“The sidewalk used to be just a place for movement, where people met other people,” says Urban Planning Professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Luskin School associate dean. Then, “sidewalks started to disappear and people started disappearing from sidewalks.”

Recalling the lively street culture in her native Greece, Loukaitou-Sideris worked with the UCLA Complete Streets Initiative to revitalize L.A.’s empty sidewalks. The project called for parklets — small-scale parks created at traffic triangles, parking spaces, parts of wide street lanes and other underused asphalt space.

While parklets in other cities offered a place to sit, the Luskin School went a step further, offering an exercise zone in some parklets with bolted-down workout machines to provide physical health improvement and combat the nation’s obesity epidemic. An assessment of the parklets found that the sites not only attracted people, but also helped reduce crime and vandalism.

“Since cities don’t have the funds to acquire huge chunks of land and convert them to open space, parklets are cost-effective ways to encourage recreation in dense, low-income areas,” she says.

Cities across the country have used the parklet template that UCLA provides on the Internet, proving that Loukaitou-Sideris’ hope of exercise zones to enhance urban life and improve public health is shared by many.