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Jens Palsberg

Q&A with Professor Jens Palsberg

Jens Palsberg is a professor and former chair of the Computer Science Department at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. He is also the faculty director of the Science Hub for Humanity and Artificial Intelligence at UCLA, a collaboration with Amazon to promote access to industry and academic research on artificial intelligence. Palsberg’s research interests span the areas of programming languages, software engineering and quantum computing. He is an associate editor of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Transactions on Quantum Computing and a member of the ACM Executive Committee.

Among the many awards Palsberg has received are the ACM SIGPLAN Distinguished Service Award in 2012 and UCLA Samueli’s Eon Instrumentation Excellence in Teaching Award in 2023.

 “It was one of the biggest moments of my academic life,” said Jens Palsberg, recalling the moment when he received the news about the Eon Instrumentation Excellence in Teaching Award. “I pour my heart into my courses, most recently into my courses on quantum computing, and I am happy that the students like them.”

Q: What are some of the main research projects that you are focusing on?
A: One of my projects is focusing on building a better software stack for quantum computing. Today, programming a quantum computer is like programming in assembly language. We need to raise the level of abstraction in quantum programs and then implement those more abstract programs efficiently. My students and I are working on making this happen.

Another of my projects focuses on using large language models to fix software bugs automatically. Those models summarize a lot of online knowledge about bugs that can be applied readily, with a little bit of care. We have a huge collection of software bugs and we are seeing that the large language models fix many of them correctly.

A third project is on understanding what can go wrong when concurrent programs run on modern hardware with out-of-order execution.

Q: How do you work with undergraduate and graduate students on these research projects?
A: I meet with different groups of students every week to discuss our goals, progress and road blocks. Meetings with two to three students at a time are the most effective, but I also meet with individual students and larger groups sometimes. I love to see how the junior students learn from the senior students. This is one of strengths of UCLA: students learn from each other, rather than only from the professors.

Q: How will your research be translated into new technologies?
A: We publish papers with our ideas and we release open-source software that demonstrate how our ideas work. I hope my research on quantum computing will become part of the next-generation software stack. Similarly, I hope that my research on large language models will be integrated into software-engineering tools.

Q: How could private funding through donor gifts enable you to further your research at UCLA?
A: Private funding would allow me to take on more students who, in turn, can take the research projects in directions that are of interest to the donor. We are always open to discussing exciting directions and their potential for impact.

Q: How did you feel when Interim Dean Dunn notified you that you had been awarded the Eon Instrumentation Inc. Excellence in Teaching Award?
A: The [interim] dean had scheduled a call with me but without giving specifics. When he told me about the teaching award, it was one of the biggest moments of my academic life. I pour my heart into my courses, most recently into my courses on quantum computing, and I am happy that the students like them. I have dreamed of this award ever since I joined UCLA 20 years ago and I am proud to be counted among many inspiring teachers at UCLA Samueli.

Q: As Director of the Science Hub for Humanity and Artificial Intelligence (The Hub), can you tell us a little about the research that is currently being done at the Hub? And how the partnership of UCLA and Amazon has been?
A: The science hub is a framework for connecting people at UCLA and Amazon. Amazon gives the science hub a base funding of $1 million annually plus more money when opportunities arise. So far, we have funded 36 Amazon Fellows, who are UCLA Samueli Ph.D. students. We have also funded more than 20 research projects across UCLA Samueli, the UCLA medical school and beyond. Every fellow and project gets a research partner at Amazon, and many fellows have gone on to internships at Amazon and joined Amazon after graduation.

The research focuses on all aspects of artificial intelligence, including foundations, models and applications. For example, Professor Loes Olde Loohuis from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA is doing a project on predicting depression during pregnancy or after childbirth. Another example is Professor Ertugrul Taciroglu from UCLA Samueli whose project is on predicting how a wildfire will spread. The Science Hub also sponsors meetings, like the CLeaR 2024 conference (CLeaR is short for Causal Learning and Reasoning) that was held at UCLA and was co-organized by Professor Aditya Grover from UCLA Samueli. This is one of the leading research events on machine learning. Overall, the partnership of UCLA and Amazon has been fantastic and it continues to grow.

Q: As a member of the Executive Committee of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), what is the most important challenge that you are working on?
A: The World is moving swiftly toward open access to all research results. This is a new publication model in which the author pays to publish, while the reader pays nothing to access articles. ACM was one of the early champions of this model and it is on track to give open access to all of its digital library by the end of 2025. I am working on making the transition smooth for our 180 annual conferences, which generate much of the content in ACM’s digital library. I am proud to report that the University of California was among the first to sign up for ACM Open, which is ACM’s way of providing open access.

Q: You are heavily involved in self-supporting degree programs at UCLA; what is that?
A: I chair a UCLA-wide committee titled “Self-Supporting Graduate Professional Degree Program (SSGPDP) Ad Hoc Advisory Committee.” We help faculty propose new self-supporting degree programs and oversee UCLA’s existing 25 such programs. UCLA Samueli has two self-supporting degree programs; one is the top-ranked Master of Science in Engineering Online, and the other is the recently launched [one-year, on-campus] Master of Engineering. I love helping people navigate an approval process that from the outside can look like a mix of a swamp and a minefield. A few years ago, I helped start the Master of Quantum Science and Technology degree program. The program is housed in physics and has a lot of lab work where students learn how to build qubits and work with quantum devices. Additionally, the students take my courses in quantum computing and learn how to program quantum computers. I get a lot of joy from helping America achieve a quantum-smart workforce.

Q: You went to UCLA Anderson to get an MBA; why did you do it and what did you get out of it?
A: After I was department chair of computer science in 2010-2015, I wanted to try something new. I knew a couple of university presidents who got MBAs and I got inspired by them. So, I enrolled in the Executive MBA program at UCLA Anderson. I learned a lot of high-quality material efficiently, I got many new friends, and I increased my confidence in myself.  It feels great to be comfortable with financials, marketing, operations and much more. After receiving the MBA, I was offered many leadership opportunities and I happily jumped on them.