Wednesday, December 12, 2018

CS@GSSI: Highlights for 2018

It is the time of the year when one sees "Best of 2018 in X (for some X)"/"Year in Review" articles appear just about everywhere in print and on the internet. Since I need to deliver a ten-minute presentation to the Scientific Advisory Board of the  Gran Sasso Science Institute (GSSI) discussing the highlights in 2018 for the computer science group, I thought that it might be a good idea to prepare for that task by following the trend and dumping some of my thoughts in this post.

So what were the main achievements of the CS@GSSI group in 2018? With only ten minutes at my disposal, I needed to make some hard choices and I decided to focus on the kudos that were bestowed on our students. After all, "our students' success is our success" and the GSSI is also an international PhD school.

Before I do so, however, let me give a bird's eye view of the research activity of the group and of the changes in personnel we have had in 2018. In November 2017, the group consisted of two full professors (one, Michele Flammini,  on loan from the University of L'Aquila), one tenure-track assistant professor, two non-tenute-track assistant professors and one postdoc. Those six people had to manage about 40 PhD students at various stages in their doctoral studies and this task could only be achieved with the help of external supervisors. Today, the faculty members in the group have not changed, but  the number of postdocs has grown to eight from November 2018. (We have been very lucky in hiring some superb young scientists!) At the same time, we have admitted eight new PhD students, seven of whom are from outside Italy and three are women, and are happy to have Shantanu Das (Marseille) as a visiting professor for a few months.


Despite the work resulting from having to manage a fairly large number of PhD students, give courses and deal with the administrative red tape that accompanies just about everything at an Italian university, my colleagues at CS@GSSI and our students managed to produce a substantial number of high-quality publications including 16 journal papers, 53 conference papers, four book chapters, two edited volumes and five refereed short abstracts/posters. (Note that these are publications with GSSI affiliation, so there is only one paper authored by one of the new seven postdocs.)

Essentially every high-quality conference in the fields of research covered by CS@GSSI has seen the presentation of at least one paper from the group. To wit, my colleagues published seven papers in top AI conferences (AAAI, AAMAS, IJCAI), seven papers in high-quality TCS conferences (including STOC and ICALP), two papers in the top SE conference (ICSE) and one in the top conference on foundations of programming languages (POPL). All the journal papers are in high-class outlets. Here let me just highlight that I have covered the result of a collaborative effort between researchers in algorithms and software engineering elsewhere.

Two of the papers are co-authored with researchers from the Urban Studies group at at the GSSI, and witness the cross-disciplinary work carried out by my colleagues in topics such as Smart Cities.

Student awards and honours

It is hard to choose what student achievements to highlight, so let me say that all our PhD students had  an excellent year and that the three contributions below are just a small sample of the work done by the PhD students at the institute.
  • CS@GSSI student Ahmed Abdelsalam has contributed to the proposal that won the first prize at the Interworking stream at the SoftFIRE Challenge 2018, which carries a 40,000 € prize. Ahmed's work on IPv6 Segment Routing (SRv6) and his recently developed SRv6-aware version of the network intrusion and detection system Snort played a key role in the award-winning proposal. Every Linux user is running GSSI software! Ahmed's network intrusion and detection system might well be the work carried out at the GSSI that is most widely used worldwide and has the most impact on a day to day basis. Ahmed now works for Cisco in Rome. 
  • CS@GSSI student Emilio Cruciani has published papers in the top conference in software engineering (ICSE) (jointly with  fellow student Roberto Verdecchia, Breno Miranda and Antonia Bertolino; see here for a post I wrote on one of the two papers), and in two of the three top conferences in the theory of artificial intelligence (AAAI and AAMAS). To put these achievements in perspective, a conference like AAAI has over 7,000 submissions and an acceptance rate of around 16%.
  • CS@GSSI student Roberto Verdecchia, whom I already mentioned in the previous highlight, has received the Early Career Researcher Award from the International Conference on Software Architectures. 
Let me also mention that my colleagues also receive awards for their sterling service to the community. By way of example, Catia Trubiani received an Exceptional Reviewer Award from ICSA. 
Software tools

Despite its very limited size, CS@GSSI devotes a substantial amount of effort to tool development. I have already mentioned the contribution given by Ahmed to the Linux kernel (IPv6 SHR). Other software tools developed by my colleagues include:
  • Omar Inverso's Lazy-CSeq, an award-winning automated analysis of complex concurrent programs, and his CSeq-fpmath and CSeq-fpmath-ILP, for the automated verification of data-intensive programs such as control system software;
  • a prototype tool for the automated analysis of multi-agent-based models, developed by Luca Di Stefano, Omar and Rocco De Nicola. 
Addendum dated 16 December 2018:  Omar Inverso's Lazy-CSeq has just received yet another accolade! It has won a Silver Medal at the 2019 8th International Competition on Software Verification (SV-COMP 2019). As can be seen from the results of the competition available here, Omar's tool Lazy-CSeq came second in the category ConcurrencySafety and was beaten only by a tool developed by a Chinese team from Tsinghua University (which is widely considered the best technical university in China).

The CS@GSSI group organized the following events in 2018:
All the events were well attended and fruitful. (To whet you appetite, let me say that we will be organizing SIROCCO 2019.)

Collaborations with other groups at the GSSI

I think that it is fair to say that the CS group at the GSSI is playing the role of glue within the institute: like Nokia claimed it used to do, it is connecting people! In fact, I do believe that CS is and will increasingly become the hub of the institute. Here are some examples to substantiate my claim, in addition to the two papers published jointly with researchers in Urban Studies.
  • We have run joint seminars with Urban Studies and Mathematics (and brought an ICM 2018 invited section speaker to the GSSI). 
  • We have a joint postdoc with Urban Studies (Geotouch project on tourist flow). 
  • We have submitted two joint project proposals with Urban Studies. 
  • Catia Trubiani participates in a  COST action related to machine learning with researchers in the Astroparticle Physics group. 
Submission of grant proposals

We have at least eight grant proposals under evaluation, submitted to funding agencies in Italy, European Union and Iceland. Moreover, we have received funding for one PhD position from a local start-up company and from the municipality of L'Aquila for a project on an innovative platform for tourism.

Of course, I hope that some of those grant applications will be successful. However, money isn’t an end in itself. Lots of it does not necessarily lead to good, let alone great, science! In my career, I have seen richly funded projects produce much less than expected (and sometimes no science at all), whereas some grassroots projects with little or no funding have led to great advances.

I do hope that, regardless of the funding situation, my colleagues will go from strength to strength, produce the best work they can and serve as role models for the PhD students at the GSSI. One cannot ask for more.

Self-evaluation for 2018
  • The CS group is already a productive and internationally respected group, despite its very limited size.
  • We are lucky to have excellent students, and brilliant postdocs and young faculty.
  • CS is already a hub at GSSI, but is grossly over-committed. We need to hire a good number of excellent faculty soon! If you are interested, send an expression of interest.

The future

I think that 2019 will be a key year for the growth of CS@GSSI. I looked at my crystal ball and made a few predictions, but I prefer to air them during the meeting with the Scientific Advisory Board of the GSSI on Saturday without making them public on the internet. After all, "verba volant, scripta manent!"

I just hope that the GSSI will continue to give us the freedom to hire the best people we can find and allow us to do our work. 

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