April 18, 2023
Dr. Pengfei Zhou is an assistant professor in the Department of Informatics and Networked Systems. His research concerns how to “explore physics and the environment around you” and “build on top of networked devices,” in order to construct “human-centered applications.” Describing his research as “application-oriented,” Zhou said he is interested in “how technology will be realized in daily life.” “Before I joined Pitt, I was running a start-up,” said Zhou, referring to fayfans Co., a company that develops Artificial Intelligence of Things (AIoT) products. His experience at fayfans Co. led him to focus on “practical development that can benefit daily life.” These technologies are “perhaps not that visible when implemented,” he said, but they are “pragmatic for improving people’s lives.”
"My research mostly relies on mobile sensing and networking domains," Zhou said. "In such domains, I would say this technology changes and evolves daily."
His research stems “from practice,” he said. Contrasting his approach with that of more theoretically minded colleagues, Zhou said that he prefers to “start from a real problem and figure out what is going on in practical, real-world scenarios. Then, we can borrow ideas from some other domain, or tailor it to methods to build some other components to design new systems and research topics.” When considering how to approach a technical problem, Zhou said, “I like to understand the physics of the world we are living in. That is my method.”
Zhou plans to continue researching mobile networking, with an emphasis on “taking advantage of the physical world” to refine “different sensors.” He said, “You have many kinds of sensors embedded in smart devices or mobile devices. You can also use mobile signals or wireless signals as sensors. You can use the light signal as a sensor. Or you can use the Wi-Fi signal as a sensor. You can also use the acoustic signal as a sensor. All of these sensors can convey an abundance of information. They could be developed and combined in a constructive manner. How do we deal with that?” Another project Zhou is currently working on concerns how to use large amounts of “hand-labeled” data obtained from mobile phones. Such information could be used to produce better, personalized applications for individuals.
Zhou’s research informs his teaching, too. He said, “This semester, I’m teaching a graduate class called ‘Applications of Networks,’ which is very related to my research, as I’m doing research on mobile networking. So, this kind of research will help to add more content to my classes. For example, when teaching a specific topic in that class, I borrow some ideas and examples from my research, so the student can better understand. In my current class, I was teaching about the internet and how it is layered into different layers and why it is like that, and what the functionality of each layer is. And what would happen if you changed them.” He added, “I’m using my research as examples, and also to show students the topics and trends of the future.” If a student wants to become a network engineer, for example, Zhou hopes to “show them where to pay attention. And if they want to change and improve a system, they should be able to identify the key and know what has been done in that research area.”