“Attention is All You Need”: New Ph.D.s Urged to Attend to “Challenges of Earth’s Eight Billion People.”

by Adam Smith


Six years ago, Ashish Vaswani, ’14, a Ph.D. computer science graduate, co-authored what may be the seminal paper in the creation of Chat GPT. With over 65,000 citations, the paper, entitled “Attention is All You Need,” introduced “transformer architecture,” a powerful type of neural network that has become widely used for natural language processing tasks

On May 10, at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s 2023 Ph.D. Hooding and Awards Ceremony, yet another USC Viterbi Ph.D. in computer science was the center of attention.

USC Viterbi PhD Hooding 2023

USC Viterbi PhD Hooding 2023

Jiaoyang Li, ’22, received the best USC Viterbi Ph.D. dissertation award for 2023 – the William F. Ballhaus, Jr. Prize for Excellence in Graduate Engineering Research. Her dissertation, “Efficient and effective techniques for large scale, multi agent pathfinding,” would allow hundreds or even thousands of fast-moving, highly coordinated robots to move packages in a warehouse environment.

Li, now an assistant professor in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, was joined by fellow nominees: Arian Aghilinejad of the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering; Gengxi Lu of the Alfred Mann Department of Biomedical Engineering; and Chen-Yu Wei of the Thomas Lord Department of Computer Science.

The 2023 USC Viterbi Ph.D. Hooding and Awards ceremony at Bovard Auditorium.

The 2023 USC Viterbi Ph.D. Hooding and Awards ceremony at Bovard Auditorium.

The 2023 event at Bovard Auditorium saw 133 newly minted Ph.D.s sport their new cardinal and gold hoods, a tradition that dates back to 12th century monks. This year’s graduates represent countries ranging from China, India, Lebanon, South Korea, Germany and the U.S. — united, according to Yannis Yortsos, USC Viterbi dean, in their “shared talents and diverse areas of expertise.”

Yortsos, echoing the theme of Vaswani’s paper, asked the assembled graduates: “In a world that has indeed grown noisier, busier and more distracted by the day, where should you, talented engineers, place your attention?”

In answer, Yortsos urged this year’s graduates to stay focused on the business of ethical and trustworthy engineering. “Our attention should be aligned with the needs and challenges of Earth’s eight billion people.”

In this year’s Ph.D. commencement video, Belinda Garana, a new USC Viterbi Ph.D. graduate in chemical engineering, noted: “We take raw materials and convert them into products which have more societal value.”

The same could easily be said of the graduates themselves, who, over a period of four plus years, have poured themselves into “exciting and ingenious” research, ranging from robots for cancer therapy to support for heart failure patients.

Basileal Imana receives his Ph.D. hooding from co-advisors Aleksandra Korolova and John Heidemann, as Dean Yortsos looks on.

As Dean Yortsos looks on, Basileal Imana (Ph.D. CS ’23) receives his Ph.D. hooding from co-advisors Aleksandra Korolova and John Heidemann.

Said Yortsos: “It will be you who will help solve the big challenges of our time, whether making solar energy competitive, securing cyberspace, engineering better medicines, providing access to clean water, eliminating poverty, enriching life.

“And it will be you that we will count on to address the complexity of technology and the unintended consequences. Attention may not be all you need, but it’s at least a beginning.”

Published on May 12th, 2023

Last updated on May 15th, 2023

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