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Two U of T scholars awarded Sloan Research Fellowships

Arts & Science mathematics theorist Benjamin Rossman is among 126 North American researchers recognized today

A mathematician specializing in computational complexity theory  and a robotics expert using machine learning to improve autonomous aerial vehicles from the University of Toronto are among 126 researchers awarded Sloan Research Fellowships this year.

Photo of Department of Mathematics assistant professor Benjamin Rossman

2017 Sloan Research Fellowship recipient specializes in finding the “hard” mathematical computational problems.

Benjamin Rossman, an assistant professor of mathematics and computer science, and Angela Schoellig, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), will each receive USD $60,000 over a two-year period to stimulate their fundamental research.

The Sloan Research Fellowships are made “in recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field.”

“U of T congratulates our researchers on receiving this prestigious North America-wide award,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation. “We’d also like to thank the Sloan Foundation for once again recognizing and supporting the excellence of U of T scholars of outstanding promise.”

The importance of finding the “hard” mathematical computational problems

Rossman, who has joint appointment in the Departments of Mathematics and Computer Science, specializes in showing that certain computational problems are inherently “hard” to solve.  An application of the importance of finding “hard” problems is in cryptography — we want our encrypted information to be beyond the ability of computers to easily crack.

This line of research involves reasoning about mathematical models of computation such as Boolean circuits.  Rossman’s main tool is a blackboard, as he works on theorems and major unsolved problems like P = NP?

“The University of Toronto has a great tradition in computational complexity theory,” Rossman said. “U of T University Professor Stephen Cook is one of the founders of the field and a major figure in the P = NP? question. Over the years, many wonderful people and ground-breaking results have come out of U of T.  I am honoured to be part of the great Theory Group here.”

Most recently, his research has focused on Boolean formulas, a treelike model of computation that lacks “memory” to store intermediate results.  “Despite the apparent weakness of this model, we still don’t have strong lower bounds” Rossman explained, adding that “This challenge is the next frontier in complexity research.”

Towards improved autonomous vehicles – in the air and on land

Schoellig, who heads the university’s Dynamic Systems Lab and is associate director of the Centre for Aerial Robotics Research and Education (CARRE), conducts research combining robotics, controls and machine learning. Her goal is to enhance the performance and autonomy of robots by enabling them to learn from past experiments and from each other.

For example, researchers can’t program an autonomous vehicle, like a self-driving car, for every possible weather condition. “We can’t replicate them all in the lab,” she said. Instead, they can program the vehicle to react cautiously in an unknown situation and learn from each new experience accordingly. Safety is their number one priority.

Photo of Angela Schoellig holdinf a piece of research equipment

University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies researcher Angela Schoellig studies robotics of autonomous aerial vehicles to improve the technology as used on land.

She has been working with aerial vehicles for the past nine years and more recently has applied her motion planning, control and learning algorithms to outdoor ground vehicles. As expected, she says the algorithms that work for flight, transfer well to driving.

“This is both an incredible honour and very humbling,” said Schoellig. “It really is recognition of the work of my entire research group and all of my collaborators — both current and past. This award will enable us to focus on new exciting directions in the development of machine learning algorithms for robotics.”

Interest in her field has exploded in the past six to seven years, she said, recalling when she did her PhD finding funding for robotics research and development was difficult but “now it’s a complete change” as automotive and tech companies race to lead this emerging field.

“It’s always a concern that the technology is being oversold,” she said, noting the excitement each advancement in autonomous vehicles receives by the media and corporations. “But as researchers, we know and understand the limitations of the technology.”