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Engineering professor named NSF program director

Hector Muñoz-Avila conducted research into the application of artificial intelligence to deep-sea oil-drilling rigs.

As computers extend their reach into more and more human activities, the opportunities for computer scientists are becoming much more diverse.

Such is the case for Hector Muñoz-Avila, associate professor of computer science and engineering.

In the last few years, Muñoz-Avila has applied his expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) to a broad variety of endeavors.

With Shamim Pakzad, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, Muñoz-Avila is using AI and sensors to attempt to predict when bridges will fail. With Shalinee Kishore, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, he is employing agents and learning techniques to integrate the components needed for the generation of energy from ocean waves. This research utilizes the principles of goal-driven autonomy, a new field in which Muñoz-Avila is a pioneer.

In the College of Arts and Sciences, Muñoz-Avila is collaborating with Padraig O’Seaghdha and other faculty members in the department of psychology to develop computational models based on neural networks to represent semantic interference and other phenomena that occur inside the brain. The project is supported by a 2012 Collaborative Research Opportunity (CORE) grant from Lehigh. O’Seaghdha, associate professor of psychology, is director of Lehigh’s cognitive science program.

As part of “The Lehigh Smart Spaces Project,” a National Science Foundation REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) site in the computer science and engineering department, Muñoz-Avila is advising students in the general area of ambient intelligence. The students are developing algorithms capable of automatically detecting when users are wasting energy in a living space. The project is led by John R. Spletzer, associate professor, and Mooi Choo Chuah, professor.

An opportunity to shape future research


Recently, Muñoz-Avila was asked by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to serve as a program director in NSF’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering in Arlington, Virginia. This fall, he will begin a two-year rotation in the Robust Intelligence Cluster of the directorate’s Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS). Upon concluding his appointment, he will return to the Lehigh faculty.

According to NSF’s web site, program directors make recommendations about proposal funding. They also help shape the nation’s direction in science, engineering and education and in the defining of new funding opportunities.

The NSF appointment comes on the heels of a sabbatical that Muñoz-Avila spent last spring at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. There, he conducted research into the application of AI to deep-sea oil-drilling rigs. The goal of the project is to avoid expensive shutdowns by predicting when physical systems might fail. Muñoz-Avila worked with Prof. Agnar Aamodt, cofounder of a company that provides AI-based predictions to drilling rig operators around the world.

“In my research, I have mainly applied AI to virtual environments such as computer games,” says Muñoz-Avila. “The sabbatical at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology gave me the opportunity to study the application of AI research to physical systems, which rely heavily on sensors. This experience was beneficial for my ongoing research with colleagues in the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.”

Muñoz-Avila has chaired several international scientific meetings, including the Sixth International Conference on Case-Based Reasoning (ICCBR-05) and the twenty-fifth Innovative Applications of AI Conference (IAAI-13).

One common theme to his varied research activities is the application of case-based reasoning and other AI techniques to intelligent systems, or agents, that have the ability to sift through thousands of stimuli and data points, and to pinpoint and correct unusual patterns or anomalies. These agents can be robots, automated computer game players or systems that monitor an electrical grid. Their ability to learn from their experiences and mistakes and to take corrective action without human intervention is part of the new field of goal-driven autonomy (GDA).

In 2012, Muñoz-Avila received a three-year research grant from NSF to develop autonomous agents that dynamically identify and self-select their goals, and to test these agents in computer games.

Muñoz-Avila will continue to conduct research and supervise his four graduate students while fulfilling the duties of program director at NSF.

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Friday, August 22, 2014

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