Will computers be able to recognize lies during negotiations over agreements in business and diplomacy, or guide students using virtual laboratory software for teaching chemistry and physics that adapts to their individual needs? These are a few of the questions comprising the research of Ben-Gurion University researcher Dr. Ya’akov (Kobi) Gal, who is the recipient of the 2014 Krill Prize for academic excellence among young Israeli scientists.

The prize is awarded annually by the Wolf Foundation.

Gal’s research focuses on designing “intelligent agents” – algorithms that run on computers, robots and smart phones – and interact with other people as well as computers. The goal of his research is to enable computers to understand how humans make decisions and to use this information to foster cooperation with their human counterparts in domains such as strategic negotiation and education.

Gal, a member of the department of information systems engineering, argues that intelligent agents will not replace human professionals but rather share the problem solving with the humans in the loop in a way that best utilizes individuals’ abilities. To this end, Gal synthesizes techniques and approaches from computer science, economics and psychology in novel ways.

In one study, Gal designed an intelligent agent for learning to negotiate with people from different cultures. The agent, designed in collaboration with Bar-Ilan University and the University of Maryland, is based on a mathematical modeling of people’s reliability and fairness during the negotiation process. For example, the agent learned that in some Arab countries, reaching agreements can take significantly longer than in Israel and the US, but once an agreement is reached, people are more likely to stick to it.

Another project concerns the intelligent analysis of students’ use of “virtual laboratories” – open-ended and flexible software for science education, supporting students’ use of exploratory activities and trial-and-error, which characterize scientists’ work in real laboratories.

Such software programs are becoming prevalent, especially in developing countries where access to teachers is limited. Although they provide a rich educational environment for students, they are notoriously difficult to analyze for teachers and educational researchers. Gal’s algorithms infer students’ activities from their traces with the software using AI techniques, and visualize these activities in a way that supports their understanding of the individual strengths and weaknesses of the students.

A third project, in collaboration with Harvard University and Microsoft Research, includes the design of intelligent agents that learn to manage interruptions when interacting with human users. Interruptions are an endemic aspect of human communications (especially in Israel) in order to provide or request useful information.

However, there is much research demonstrating that such interruptions are costly – they decrease our efficiency, irritate and carry a cognitive load.

An example is the dreaded “Clippy” application that some of us may remember from earlier Windows versions (“Are you trying to write a letter?”). In contrast to Clippy, Gal’s agent predicts people’s responses to machine-generated interruptions in different types of settings, and the computer agent uses this information to determine how to interrupt the user in a way that minimizes intrusion while providing necessary information.

PIRATE BUGS GO ON DUTY Moshav Ein Yahav in the Arava has for years used predatory wasps and other beneficial insects to protect their crops. Now it has introduced a “pirate bug” called Orius to protect their peppers from predators and make unnecessary the use of pesticides. The bugs prefer certain kinds of insects to munch on, but they will still be happy to get aphids, small caterpillars and mites.

Daniel Lev, director-general of the agricultural association owned by the moshav, says the pirate bug has a bigger appetite for thrips than other predators and that it eats both newborn and adult thrips. The pirate bugs remain in the field for the whole season. Their most important quality, however, is that they do no harm to the vegetables.

Lev said that a laboratory checks all the produce to determine if it has any pesticide residue, and only if approved do the vegetables for go to market. Sixty percent of Israel’s exported fresh vegetables are grown on the moshav. Thrips are especially nasty for peppers, because they infiltrate the flowers and cause damage to the vegetables as they develop.

MILK TO REDUCE GARLIC ODOR Garlic – an excellent source of magnesium, vitamin B6, vitamin C and selenium – has many health benefits. Its shortcoming is that it contains a high number of sulfur compounds, which are responsible for the characteristic odor and flavor of garlic and cause bad breath.

A new Ohio State University study in the Journal of Food Science advises drinking milk while eating garlic heavy food to reduce the odor.

Both fat-free and whole milk lowered the concentration of volatile odor-emitting compounds from garlic in the nose and mouth. Due to its higher fat content, whole milk was found to be more effective.

Although drinking milk after eating a garlic-infused meal can still help, the study found that drinking it during the meal will have better results.

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