UH Hilo computer scientist receives prestigious NSF grant to research artificial intelligence

The half-million dollar award to Travis Mandel will have a major impact on research and educational activity on Hawai‘i Island and grow UH Hilo’s expertise and curriculum in the field of data science.  

By Susan Enright

Travis Mandel
Travis Mandel, an expert in artificial intelligence, has received the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious grant in support of junior faculty and awarded to those who are likely to become role models and leaders in research and education. Photo by Raiatea Arcuri for UH Hilo Stories.

A computer scientist at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is the recipient of a grant from the National Science Foundation that will have a major impact on research and educational activity on Hawai‘i Island.

Travis Mandel, an assistant professor and expert in artificial intelligence, will use the $549,790 five-year award to develop new artificial intelligence techniques which involve humans “in the loop” to address problems of great local importance. The project will leverage the investigation to drive increased interest in science and technology among community members and local undergraduate students.

The funding, which commenced March 1, 2020, with the first installment of $104,876, will also help UH Hilo’s growing expertise in the field of data science and be of key importance to the emerging data science program at the university.

The grant, a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award, is the NSF’s most prestigious offered in support of junior faculty and awarded to those who are likely to become role models and leaders in research and education. It further supports Mandel’s investigations into how AI and machine learning systems can collaborate with humans to solve real-world problems too challenging for either to address alone.

“The goal of this project is to create new algorithms and interaction paradigms that enable humans and artificial intelligence systems to work together, leveraging each other’s strengths to collect better data,” Mandel explains.

The research will focus on accelerating scientific data collection through human-in-the-loop AI. This cross-disciplinary work aims to transform the process of scientific data collection across a wide variety of scientific fields, including psychology, marine science, and ecology, allowing scientists to work on more scientific discoveries while spending less time, effort, and funding collecting data.

The project has two technical aims. In the first, Mandel will seek to understand how to build AI systems for data collection that are well-aligned with the work of human scientists. In the second, the investigator will seek to understand how to design AI systems that efficiently direct human effort in real-time to optimize data collection.

“I’m particularly excited about the opportunities this grant will provide for our talented and hardworking undergraduate students to get involved in cutting-edge computer science and data science research,” Mandel said. “The project also includes components that integrate research and education, such as building new data science curriculum and developing interactive video game exhibits at the [UH Hilo] ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and the Hawai‘i Science and Technology Museum.”

Travis Mandel

Mandel’s main goal at UH Hilo is to help lead the development of the new data science program at the university. This includes creating new curriculum, teaching new classes, and forging interdepartmental connections. He was hired through the UH Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) project ‘Ike Wai, a statewide study into Hawai‘i’s water resources. The program includes a substantial research component, and Mandel has been involved in mentoring data science research students during the school year as well as co-leading the UH Hilo EPSCoR undergraduate summer bridge research program. He also assists other scientific researchers (both inside and outside of the ‘Ike Wai project) to better apply machine learning and artificial intelligence to their research problems.

Mandel received his bachelor of science in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University, and his master of science and doctor of philosophy from the University of Washington. His research interests lie in the realm of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Specifically, he is interested in how data-driven AI systems can work closely together with humans to help them better achieve their goals. Throughout his research he has developed new reinforcement learning systems that automatically optimize the design of educational games, and has deployed these systems to thousands of students.

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Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.