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Computer Programming Language Wins Grand Prize at Media Lab Summit

By Zainab Iqbal

Published: October 19th, 2016

A team of two students and one professor from Brooklyn College won the grand prize of $10,000 at the NYC Media Lab (NYCML) Summit at Columbia University on Sept. 22.

This summit was “the biggest pan-university NYC media showcase of the year,” according to the NYCML website.

Computer Science Professor Neng-Fa Zhou, first-year graduate student Jie Mei, and programmer Jonathan Fruhman brought home the prize for their demo of a programming language called Picat

“Picat is a multi-paradigm programming language aimed for general-purpose applications, which means theoretically it can be used for everything in life,” said Mei. “[Such as] solving [and planning] constraint satisfaction problems.”

Mei became interested in this program after Professor Zhou gave a lecture during his senior year at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. He decided to take part in Picat because he wanted to sharpen his programming skills and aspired to “have [the] guidance of a great professor at Brooklyn College,” Mei said of Professor Zhou.

Both Zhou and Mei are well accomplished, as evidenced by the research they’ve done and the many software programs they’ve worked on.

Zhou had been studying in Japan for thirteen years until he decided to come to Brooklyn College. “I was working on systems since my Ph.D. So, it was a long time ago,” laughed Zhou. “I’ve worked on implementation techniques of different program languages, and started [Picat] just three to four years ago.”

Mei, on the other hand, worked on programming during his years in college. “I worked with three teammates to write codes to control the movement of an electric car with microcontroller,” recalled Mei. “Eventually we could make the small car circle, move forward and backward, make turns and do a combination of these movements.”

Mei, along with his teammates at the University of Michigan, finished a project called Creative AI. They applied a neuro-linguistic programming concept “to develop models of a music artist’s lyrics so that the model would receive lyric data as input and ultimately generates new random lyrics in the style of that artist,” said Mei. Innovatively, the group gave users the option to select the music speed and keep the pitches organized.

Even though both Mei and Zhou have completed and worked on many successful projects, they were surprised to learn they won the grand prize.

“After the demo I left the conference—my student stayed there and he told me the news and I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Zhou. “I didn’t even know they gave out prizes.”

Mei remembers feeling the same way as Zhou did. “I simply regarded this summit as a great opportunity to talk to people about what Picat is capable of, network with professionals in the industry, and learn about the frontier technologies.”

Though Zhou has published many papers on programs that were academically successful, he wants Picat to be distinct.

“I want this to be successful, but not only academically. We want to build a system that can be widely used,” said Zhou. “When you build something, you want people to use it. And this language has become a sensation in our community; other people have started using it.”

So what makes Picat so important?

“Nowadays, artificial intelligence is becoming more and more important and popular. Machine learning is a very important part of AI, and so is searching. After the machines or models are trained, we will want to search our desired result,” explained Mei. “In Picat modules, there are CP solver, SAT solver, interface with third-party solvers, etc. They will help us to search faster and find the optimal solution.”

According to Picat’s website, the language incorporates the features of many other computer languages so users can solve problems more easily.

What’s next for Picat? Zhou wants to continue working to make it more useful both academically and non-academically, more beneficial, and more efficient—as all of his future projects will revolve around Picat.

Mei’s goals parallel Zhou’s. He too wants to continue developing more applications to solve problems. “Hopefully, I can build my own models, use Picat to solve very difficult planning problems in an easier way, and publish my papers,” said Mei. “In the long run, I may work in an IT company using my analytical and programming skills to deal with big data or develop software to benefit our life.”

Zhou’s advice for computer science majors? “Everything takes time. So start with smart ideas and then build up to large and useful systems. It takes time to create software, and it’s very time consuming.”

There will be a poster to further showcase Picat at the 2016 CIE-GNYC Convention, which will be held on Oct. 22, 2016 at the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel in Flushing, NY.

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