UAB Magazine Online Features
Computer Scientist Uses Language to Fight Crime
By Matt Windsor
olice detectives track criminals using fingerprints.
UAB computer scientist Thamar Solorio, Ph.D., wants to do the same with words. Her research team is bringing artificial intelligence technology to bear on the field of stylometry, which aims to figure out who wrote a piece of text by analyzing word choice and other idiosyncrasies.
“Our goal is to see if we can generate a ‘writeprint’ to identify a document with its author,” Solorio says. The UAB group is developing algorithms that can sift through tiny snippets of style from Twitter updates, Facebook posts, and chat transcripts to discover common elements. Several other research teams are working on automated “authorship attribution,” Solorio notes, but her lab is one of the first to tackle social media.
Solorio’s work, funded by the National Science Foundation and the United States Office of Naval Research, among others, could help identify the authors of terrorist plots from conversations in Internet chatrooms. The same algorithms could also be used to combat cyberbullying among schoolkids and provide valuable information in many other applications, Solorio says. She and fellow UAB researcher Ragib Hasan, Ph.D., are now investigating ways to use authorship attribution techniques to combat a major problem facing Wikipedia—namely, the altering, or defacing, of pages on controversial topics by partisans supporting different sides.
The Clue’s in the Comma
Solorio’s research group, the Computational Representation and Analysis of Language (CoRAL) lab, specializes in natural language processing. This branch of artificial intelligence drives everything from Google’s sorting of search queries to the speech-recognition software used by your bank.
Whether you’re aiming to teach a computer to recognize customers’ voices or a cyberbully’s threats, “you’re trying to design a program that can generalize beyond the examples that you give it so that it can make accurate predictions about new data,” Solorio explains.
The trick is to generate useful predictions when you have only a handful of characters to study—such as the dozen or so words in a typical Twitter post. To succeed, “you need to move beyond word choice and frequency,” Solorio says. “You need to look at syntax, what kinds of word classes are being used, and the length of the sentences, for example. On the Web, you can look at emoticon use and capitalization, too.” Punctuation marks can also hold clues, Solorio says—“there are definite patterns in how people use semicolons, for instance.”
Artificial Conversations Spark Insights into the Evolution of Ideas
By Matt Windsor
Top: Philosopher Marshall Abrams is designing a digital simulation of the flow of ideas among individuals that leads to cultural change.
Above: a representation of the neural networks inside one "person" in the simulation.
In a small office in UAB’s Humanities Building, philosopher Marshall Abrams, Ph.D., is hosting a heated debate about the origins of life. The nine participants share their opinions rapid-fire, completing several hundred conversations every minute. Nevertheless, not a word is spoken; all the action is happening on Abrams’s computer screen. Welcome to philosophy’s digital era.
Abrams is building a computer-based simulation of cultural change, the flow of ideas among individuals that exerts a powerful shaping force on a society’s guiding values. “Meteorologists want to understand the local changes that affect large-scale weather patterns,” Abrams says. “Social scientists want to do the same thing with cultural change. But just like the weather, it is very subtle and complicated. I’m trying to see what a digital model can add.”
Talk Amongst Yourselves
Researchers study the process of cultural change largely through surveys and by tracking books, speeches, films, blog posts, and other recorded artifacts of our collective thought processes. But Abrams, inspired by a growing number of simulations in social science fields, is taking a different approach. Building on software developed by Canadian philosopher Paul Thagard, Abrams has designed a system that lets individual software “agents” talk amongst themselves, sharing their opinions and then responding to the ideas of others by changing their own views.
Rodney Nowakowski Adds Optometry Dean to a Long and Colorful Resume
By Grant Martin
UAB School of Optometry are likely to know Rodney Nowakowski, O.D., Ph.D., as their dean, since Nowakowski was named the school’s fifth dean in early 2011.Current and future students of the
To others, Nowakowski may always be remembered as a teacher, considering his more than 35 years as a UABSO faculty member. But throughout those same years, there are also those who knew Nowakowski primarily as their optometrist, a student, a geneticist, a musician, or an airplane pilot. And when Nowakowski casually mentions his earlier stints as a lifeguard, a soldier, and an instructor of ballroom dancing, one may legitimately wonder if there ever has been a dean with a resumé quite so colorful.
“I’m the archetypical jack of all trades, master of none,” Nowakowski jokes. “I just have a passion for learning new things.” That passion may have been evident earlier in Nowakowski’s life, but there was a brief period when he was a college dropout working as a lifeguard on South Florida beaches with precious little on his resume that would suggest he could one day be dean of the most prestigious optometry school in the world.
Innovative Ideas on Preventing and Treating Kidney Stones
By Matt Windsor
The pain has been described as a knife in the back, a body blow, and “the closest thing a man will come to experiencing childbirth.” Whatever the analogy, kidney stones are enormously painful. They often leave victims writhing on the ground.
“They can be excruciating,” says Dean Assimos, M.D., the new chair of the UAB Department of Urology. He speaks from personal experience, having survived two stones himself. And if you live in the South, you’re more likely to know just what he’s talking about.
“The Southeast is the Stone Belt of America,” says Assimos, an internationally renowned expert who specializes in the removal of large stones and preventive measures to avert stone formation. His research group is currently investigating the preventive powers of fish oil supplements and a common gut bacterium. The investigators are also trying to unravel the reasons why stones develop in the first place.
Diet, the hot climate, and genetic factors may be the driving forces behind the high levels of stone formation in the South, Assimos explains. (See "Preventing Stones.") “However, the prevalence of kidney stone formation is also increasing across the country,” he says.
The number of Americans with kidney stones has almost doubled since 1994, according to a study presented at the American Urological Association meeting in May 2012. Researchers speculate that rising obesity rates are a key factor. Whatever the cause, more cases of kidney stones create a burden on the medical system, Assimos says, because treating them usually results in significant health-care expenditures.