Regents Professor is an AI explorer of 4 decades

Huan Liu helped pioneer the field in its early days

Portrait of ASU Regents Professor Huan Liu.


Arizona State University Professor Huan Liu is well-suited for his job. He’s known around the world as an early AI explorer, his research at ASU has led to seven patents and he has graduated 34 PhD students over the course of his academic careerThirteen of Liu's PhD students joined academia immediately after graduation. . Even so, he felt underdressed when he learned about his latest honor.

Last October, he was mysteriously called into ASU President Michael Crow’s office. And he felt his attire — a SCAISchool of Computing and Augmented Intelligence polo shirt and slacks — wasn’t quite up to par.

“I walked into President Crow’s office and was greeted by him and his leadership team, who were all well dressed. Then they broke the news to me,” said Liu, a computer and science engineering professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “I wished I wore a suit and tie that day … but I’m just a computer scientist, and we usually dress like programmers.”

Liu is not just any computer scientist — he’s now one of ASU’s top scholars, and a recently named Regents Professor for 2023.

He is truly honored by the designation.

“I’m humbled and proud because I am the first one from computer science and engineering to be named a Regents Professor,” Liu said. “We are a big university and there are so many great professors here. To be put in the same category as someone like Alexandra Navrotsky — I mean, she is amazing. So I was immediately humbled.”

Regents Professor is the highest faculty honor and is conferred on full professors who have made remarkable achievements that have received national attention and international renown.

Less than 3% of all ASU faculty carry the distinction.

"For decades, Dr. Liu has been a leading scholar in computing sciences and machine learning, with a focus on social computing and data mining," said Kyle Squires, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. "His research and teaching have advanced the field and set a strong foundation for future knowledge. He is a true exemplar of faculty excellence and deserving of this recognition."

Liu is globally recognized as a pioneer in his field who is exceptionally broad-based relative to most other AI researchers. He focuses on developing computational methods for data mining, machine learning and social computing.

His contributions in big data include development of AI models that can impact health, social media and mis- or disinformation, among other areas. He actively collaborates across disciplines to tackle today’s societal problems.

Its an impressive list of accomplishments in a field that was originally beyond Liu’s horizons.

Born in Shanghai, China, Liu spent two years at an apprentice school after graduating from high school in 1975. However, Liu was a voracious reader, borrowing numerous books and dreaming about being a college student.

When the opportunity arose, Liu passed a competitive college entrance exam and enrolled at Shanghai Jiao Tong University where he studied computer science.

“My father was the chief engineer at a power plant. He foresaw the increasing power and potential application of computers and suggested I should go for a relatively new major — computer science,” Liu said. “Although it was challenging to study computer science when every student had only limited time to run their tape-punched programs, I was very lucky and grateful that I survived the tough program.”

Lucky indeed. It was an academic discipline in its infancy and the field was wide open for someone like Liu to not only learn, but to advance it to its current state.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science, Liu headed to the University of Southern California in late December 1984 to pursue his doctoral degree. There, he not only had to learn a new language but had to overcome initial culture shock. With the help from his professors, staff and fellow students, Liu successfully obtained his master’s and PhD degrees while having made many friends.

At the end of 1989, he left California for Melbourne, Australia. Liu worked for the Telstra Research Laboratory, conducting telecommunications research. He worked there for more than four years and decided to try something different — to teach and research. He started teaching computer science at National University of Singapore in 1994. His first course was “Introduction to AI” with 500 undergraduate students.

“I was so nervous that I developed a stomach ache when facing so many students for the first time,” Liu said, laughing. “Later, I asked another young colleague sitting in my class if she could tell I was nervous, and she said she didn’t sense it. I survived.”

Professor interacting with student in computer lab

Regents Professor Haun Liu interacts with one of his graduate students. Photo by Enrique Lopez

He not only survived but thrived. From then on, he carried out research following his own interests and began writing textbooks and publishing articles, developing software and hosting workshops and conferences. Liu was quickly recognized as a leader in data mining and AI. Liu says it is attributed to advice he received from a senior colleague at the National University of Singapore that “you should aim to build your signature work.”

“I focus on asking questions and solving problems essential to handling big data,” Liu said. “One such problem is feature selection that finds salient features from high-dimensional data. The ‘signature work’ advice proved to be impactful, helping my research career in the long run. My publications have been cited by fellow researchers. In retrospect, I deemed myself lucky to evolve my research direction from knowledge-based AI systems to a then-emerging field, data mining.”

His stature didn’t go unrecognized. He was hired by ASU’s Stephen Yau, the Walter P. Murphy Professor and Chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering on Jan. 1, 2000.

"I was hired as a database person, but ASU wanted me to expand the curriculum in my first semester by offering a graduate course on data mining because it was just starting to emerge in popularity,” said Liu, who was given tenure immediately upon his arrival. “The pervasive use of computers has generated big data. People suddenly realized that we need to make good use of all this data. This is why data mining grows so fast. It has found many meaningful real-world uses.”

Several years into his career at ASU, social media started to emerge. During his first sabbatical in 2007, he ventured into social computing, a natural confluence of social network analysis and social media mining, and co-founded a social computing conference in 2008.

Liu has also been a great mentor to his students. 

“Professor Liu’s mentorship had a profound implication on my academic journey," said former PhD student Nitin Agarwal, who today is the Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy Endowed Chair and Distinguished Professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "He gives you complete freedom to explore your scientific curiosities and encourages you to strive for excellence."

Agarwal's doctoral dissertation work laid a key stone in Liu’s new research direction in social computing and social media mining.

“His mantra of ‘student-first’ has stuck with me throughout my academic career," Agarwal said. "You can walk into his office anytime and ask for help. If you email him, you can expect a response almost instantly. He gives personalized attention to each and every student. I still wonder how he does that.”

Jiliang Tang, a Foundation Professor in the computer science and engineering department at Michigan State University, said Liu went beyond the call of duty for him.

"When I started my PhD journey at ASU in 2010, I was a student with no real direction or purpose. Last summer, I was promoted to a full professor and designated as a University Foundation Professor at MSU. However, I had a secret never shared before: there were many moments in my first semester when I wanted to give up," Tang said. "With Dr. Liu’s guidance, support and encouragement, I was able to find my calling and excel in my field. He saw potential in me when I did not, and he opened doors for me that I never thought were possible. He helped me to believe in myself and to shape me into the person I am today."
Liu continues to inspire PhD students through his gentle but wise approach. Through his mentorship, they learn how to receive criticism, apply feedback, be confident in their presentations and always remain professional, said Mansooreh Karami, a computer engineering PhD student currently under Liu’s tutelage.

“He challenges us every day, even in simple discussions throughout the day in the lab,” Karami said. “He helps us to build critical thinking. He helps us to refine our thoughts and ideas, so we become confident in our research and take ownership of the work. He helps us to become leaders.”

All reasons why the title of Regents Professor is a perfect fit.

Top photo: Newly named Regents Professor Huan Liu. Photo by Enrique Lopez

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