Illinois CS Professor Gul Agha Named ACM Fellow

12/6/2018 Mike Koon, College of Engineering

CS Professor Gul Agha has been named an ACM Fellow for “research in concurrent programming and formal methods."

Written by Mike Koon, College of Engineering

Gul Agha, professor of computer science, has been named a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. ACM Fellows are composed of an elite group that represents less than one percent of the Association’s global membership. ACM will formally recognize its 2018 Fellows at the annual Awards Banquet in San Francisco on June 15, 2019.
Illinois CS Professor Gul Agha named an ACM Fellow for “research in concurrent programming and formal methods."
Illinois CS Professor Gul Agha named an ACM Fellow for “research in concurrent programming and formal methods."

Agha, the Director of the Open Systems Laboratory at the University of Illinois and a faculty member in the College of Engineering’s City Scholars program, is cited for “research in concurrent programming and formal methods, specifically the Actor Model.” His widely cited work, "Actors: A Model of Concurrent Computing in Distributed Systems," provided a basis for a number of research projects in concurrent programming. Actor frameworks such as Scala/Akka, Erlang and Microsoft Orleans have been used to program Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook Chat, the British National Health Service Portal, and hundreds of commercial cloud applications.

Results of his research promise to lead to new ways for building and maintaining open distributed systems. Specifically, Agha's group is developing concurrent programming languages and systems which support applications with high-performance, fault-tolerance or real-time requirements.

Agha said he was humbled by the recognition, and thankful for the research environment he has enjoyed at the University of Illinois since he joined the faculty in 1989.

“It reflects well on the environment at Illinois, the different collaborations over the last 30 years. It really reflects the ability to flourish in an intellectually stimulating environment with great colleagues and students,” he said. “The major strength of Illinois is the collaborative atmosphere, that collegial strength.”

Agha has pioneered research in an approach he calls statistical model checking with applications in diverse areas such as biological systems and cyberphysical systems.  He also developed new logics and algorithms for quantitative model checking of aggregate properties of systems.

“The idea is to look the behavior of systems in the aggregate and behavior you can approximate. In a large scale system a lot of the behavior will be statistical in nature,” he said. “What we did is to combine statistical methods with logical methods so your specifications can be expressed precisely.”

Agha’s group developed methods to automatically verify distributed systems during execution using decentralized monitoring.  It also developed novel methods to test programs using dynamic memory and concurrency. Those methods have been incorporated in popular software testing tools such as KLEE, Microsoft SAGE, and S2E, and widely used in companies including Micro Focus Fortify, NVIDIA, and IBM, and by numerous security companies to find security vulnerabilities.

Agha, together with B.F. Spencer, Jr., professor of civil and environmental engineering at Illinois, is co-director of the Illinois Structural Health Monitoring Group. The project pioneered research applying wireless sensor networks and distributed computing to continuously monitor the structural health of civil infrastructure such as bridges.  The project implemented the world's largest sensor network with over 700 sensors on the Jindo bridge. The technology has also been used to monitor the world largest Ferris wheel during its construction in Dubai--the first time such monitoring was done.  Agha is a Founder of Embedor Technologies, which is transferring the technology to the real-world.

Professor Agha earned a PhD in computer and communications science from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1985. After a four-year stint as a research scientist and lecturer at MIT, he joined Illinois. He has advised 30 PhD and 16 MS theses at Illinois. His advisees include professors at universities such as the University of California at Berkeley, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Irvine. Others have gone to industry, including two vice presidents at Google, a vice president and general manager at Goldman-Sachs, and several other successful entrepreneurs--one of whom was a founder of Netscape.

Agha is currently editor-in-chief of Computing Now, which covers emerging technologies. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of ACM Computing Surveys from 2000 to 2007, a major cross-cutting journal in computer science, and editor-in-chief of IEEE Parallel and Distributed Technology.


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This story was published December 6, 2018.