Via Dallas Business Journal || Interview By Rob Schneider — Dr. Rym Zalila-Wenkstern and her team at the University of Texas at Dallas invented a smart traffic light system that allows traffic lights to communicate with each other and collaboratively adjusting the timing signals in real-time to reduce congestion on roads.
Zalila-Wenkstern, an Associate Professor of Computer Science and the Director of the Multi-Agent and Visualization Systems (MAVS) lab at the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science said the biggest challenge is getting certain cities to trust the new technology.
“The biggest challenge that my research lab faces is the resistance from certain cities to abandon their existing 20th century traffic control systems and adopt distributed AI technology,” she said. “The prevalence of Artificial Intelligence engendered the fear of a tech takeover. People are hesitant to allow AI-based technologies to permeate certain sectors for fear that it will eliminate manned jobs.”
She said they have approached clients to let them know their intention isn’t to replace the existing human engineering effort but rather to relieve it of the mundane and low-level tasks.
“We want to empower engineers with more time and opportunity to participate in higher-level, more dynamic projects,” she said.
Zalila-Wenkstern answers more question from the Business-Journal.
Who is your technology hero?
Richard Branson, because he is an amazing leader who is not afraid to be radically different. He dreams big, breaks rules, takes risks and acknowledges that failure is the path to success.
Unlike many, his successes are not merely measured by traditional gain metrics such as ROIs or profit margins — but rather by the creativity and collaboration of his team to attain unachievable, human-centric goals. He is a daydreaming daredevil who is having fun changing the world!
What is something people aren’t thinking about that will change technology in the next few years?
One understated aspect that I feel will heavily influence the way we apply technology is the rapid population growth around urban centers around the world. As the population continues to swell around big cities, we need to optimize urban layouts and roadway infrastructures to sustain human traffic.
The existing 20th century infrastructure is no longer capable of sustaining 21st century traffic needs. A majority of our traffic system is focused on the 2D surface of the earth. It doesn’t make sense that we’ve built higher and higher buildings to accommodate growing populations in cities, but our transportation infrastructure has remained mostly flat.
I believe that the growing gap between the rapidly growing population and the increasingly congested transit network will inspire a new wave of transportation paradigms. I believe in a future where we’ll see flying urban taxis and drones that can transport people and goods across cities. Think of driverless pods and smart vehicles that can communicate with each other and the infrastructure to exploit the 3-dimensional space around us to optimize traffic flow.
Can you recall the moment you decided what you wanted to do professionally?
I can clearly remember when I developed my first program in my Introductory Programming course. The terminal connected a mainframe computer displayed: “Hello, Rym”. That’s when I knew that I had found my passion. When, I was told that, as a woman, I was not “made” for the field, that’s when I knew I had found my calling.
What should we be teaching children about technology in school right now that we aren’t?
We should introduce our children to programming languages at an early age. Teaching young children how to “communicate” with a machine will help them expand their creativity, develop computational thinking and demystify a piece of hardware that is an integral part of our daily lives.
Rym Zalila-Wenkstern of The University of Texas at Dallas is a finalist in the Technology Inventor Award category for the 2019 Tech Titan awards. Category winners will be announced at an awards event on Friday, Aug. 23. For more information about the awards event, click here.
ABOUT THE UT DALLAS COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT
The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 2,800 bachelors-degree students, more than 1,000 master’s students, 190 Ph.D. students, 52 tenure-track faculty members, and 41 full-time senior lecturers, as of Fall 2018. With The University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.