2017 Commencement Student Speaker


Frank Chen, computer science major, was the student speaker for the 2017 commencement. The student speaker represents all graduates at commencement and is selected through a competitive process. Chen also received the undergraduate Harry M. Showman Prize, which recognizes students who have effectively communicated the achievements, research, results or social significance of any aspect of engineering. Chen heads to Redmond, Wash. next month to start as a technical program manager at Microsoft.

Can you explain your research interests in general terms, and how they would this be applied?

I worked as an undergraduate researcher at the Vision, Cognition, Learning, and Autonomy lab (VCLA) at UCLA, under the mentorship of Ph.D. student Nishant Shukla and Professor Song-Chun Zhu. My research work was in robot learning; more specifically, training a robot to understand purpose through utility mapping and fluent tracking. Fluents are important formulations in robot learning, as they capture the change in abstract spatial and temporal concepts of an object. To track fluents, we developed a computer-vision module which tracked the status of clothes in real time from videos of cloth-folding demos.

We try to teach a robot to fold a shirt by making it understand the why, how and the what behind folding a shirt. This has major implications in the study of artificial intelligence because robots that understand the purpose behind their actions will try to optimize their utility rather than optimizing their low-level atomic actions. This can lead to interesting observations of imperfect utility-climbing, where the robot does not necessarily follow orders to a precise degree. This is called ‘skepticism’.

How did you get interested in your field?

I was a computer vision research intern at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a year (I worked part-time during the school year), and that experience inspired me to continue work in vision and AI at the VCLA lab. My mentor Nishant and the principal investigator Professor Zhu both inspired me to contribute to this scientific community. I believe robotics and AI have enormous potential in our world for the next decade, and I’m happy to have contributed to this field.

Can you share a favorite memory of UCLA that stands out?

Attending and organizing LA Hacks for the past couple of years has been a very rewarding experience. LA Hacks is UCLA’s student-run hackathon; it is an event where you apply what you learn, and meet a variety of people. I encourage everyone to become part of different student orgs during their four years at UCLA. Working and interacting with a diverse group of students will make you think outside of your own bubble; this encourages you to be more open-minded.