Faculty Perspective – Professor Karthik Pattabiraman Named a Distinguished Contributor of the IEEE Computer Society Class of 2022!

Dr. Karthik Pattabiraman is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of British Columbia, focusing on the research areas of dependable computer systems, computer security, cyber-physical systems and software engineering. He was recently named a distinguished contributor of the IEEE Computer Society class of 2022.

IEEE is the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to the advancement of technology, and the IEEE Computer Society Distinguished Contributor Recognition Program recognizes members who have made technical contributions to the Computing Profession, Computer Community, and Humanity. Karthik was one of 19 members chosen worldwide to receive this recognition. 

Continue on to read about Karthik, his thoughts on being named a distinguished contributor of the IEEE Computer Society, his recent works, and his current research focus! 

Congratulations on being named a distinguished contributor of the IEEE Computer Society, class of 2022! How do you feel about this recognition?

Thank you, I’m honoured to be recognized by the IEEE Computer Society, which is the largest society of the IEEE, which in turn is the world’s largest organization of technical professionals. I owe this to all my students, colleagues and collaborators over the years at UBC and elsewhere.

Can you explain the process of selection for this recognition program (ex. timeline, process of applying)?

I filled in an online form on the IEEE computer society website (in October) with a list of publications, awards won etc., and the application was evaluated by a committee of experts.

What were some of your recent works that contributed to you being named as a distinguished contributor?

I believe the research work that led to my receiving this honour is what I call the “good enough dependability” paradigm, which my group has been pursuing since I joined UBC. To give you a short overview, my research is in the area of dependable and secure computer systems, and in particular, to build computer systems that are resilient to both faults and security attacks. This is a challenging problem as building such resilient computer systems is very expensive, and in the past, such systems were confined to domains such as aerospace or medicine. In contrast, my research aims to achieve high reliability and security at low costs by carefully choosing the parts of the system to protect. We have demonstrated this paradigm in a variety of systems and most recently in the Internet of Things (IoT), where cost and energy are at a premium. 

What does your current research look like?

My current research involves understanding and improving the reliability and security of autonomous systems. These are systems that require little to no human intervention, e.g., robots, autonomous cars. However, many autonomous systems also deploy Machine Learning (ML), and it is well known that ML algorithms are highly susceptible to both faults and security attacks. This has serious consequences when these ML algorithms are deployed in systems such as autonomous cars. Hence, my research aims to make these systems reliable and secure.

What’s something people wouldn’t expect about your research topic? 

Most people think that once you apply ML to a system, and it seems to be correct for the common cases, then you can blindly trust the results. The recent case of ChatGPT is an example. However, many of these systems today need constant human supervision and double checking, and cannot yet be trusted with tasks that can potentially endanger human lives such as autonomous vehicles and robotic surgery. Unfortunately, humans are known to be notoriously bad at supervising automated tasks, especially when the automation seems to be reliable for the most part. This is a dilemma that we are yet to resolve; we want to build autonomous systems to take over boring or hazardous tasks from humans – yet we need humans to supervise these systems, which is not something we (as humans) are good at doing. 

What interests you most about your research/what draws you to this topic? What aspects of this research do you find most exciting? 

I believe autonomous systems are going to define the future, as they have tremendous potential to improve the quality of our lives and save lives by avoiding accidents in the case of self-driving cars. Unfortunately, we still need a lot of work to ensure that these systems are indeed dependable so we can entrust our lives to them. This is what motivates me to work on this topic. One aspect of this research that I really enjoy is that it is totally uncharted territory, and nobody quite knows how we will solve this problem yet. So we end up learning different areas and trying different techniques to attempt to solve the problem, which is quite exciting! 

What are some of the main current issues in your research area that you and your team try to tackle? 

There are four main areas of focus in our research group. First, we’re trying to build robust ML systems that are able to tolerate both faults and attacks and still provide trustworthy outputs. Second, we’re looking at the algorithms used in the control and navigation of robotic vehicles and making them secure and reliable. Thirdly, we are working on edge computing, which is a technology to execute software on small, embedded devices close to where data is gathered. Autonomous systems of the future will rely heavily on edge computing for latency and security.  Finally, we are working on making blockchains more secure, as future autonomous systems will need to negotiate between themselves, and blockchain is one way to enable these negotiations.

Thinking back to earlier years, why did you choose your research topic/ area of focus? 

As a kid, I liked to take apart things and often break them (much to the chagrin of my parents!). Later, I liked to try corner cases with software and find out where they break, especially in video games (to unlock hidden features). These experiences drew me to find both faults and security vulnerabilities in computer systems, and later to work on improving their resilience to faults and attacks. I often tell my students that the most important thing to cultivate in this area is a sense of play, or asking oneself questions like “what happens if I try this really crazy thing?”.

What is one thing you like to do for fun outside of your role in ECE and IEEE?

I like reading and listening to (south Indian) classical music. I also enjoy going on long walks.

To learn more about Karthik, his faculty profile page can be found here: https://ece.ubc.ca/karthik-pattabiraman/