Student Writes Three Research Papers for Academic Journals

During the pandemic, some took up new hobbies, and others did endless puzzles and watched too many episodes of Tiger King. But Arav Kumar ’23 spent time thinking about thinking. Not only was he in lockdown with the rest of the world during those initial months starting in March 2020, but his lockdown extended into his entire sophomore year as his at-risk grandmother lives with his family. His experience compelled him to write three research papers this summer.

“I didn’t have much else to do but think,” he said. “What are you going to do after a while? Video games get boring. I watched Friends ten times and got sick of Ross.”

Kumar picked up a book, The Philosophers Book of Questions and Answers, and started to read. He explained that the book is comparable to two or three years of a philosophy degree and is organized by categories such as happiness, God, ethics, and politics. The book poses questions and activities for the reader to consider. One activity suggests the reader discusses a traditionally defined role for a man i.e. mechanic but uses only female pronouns to describe the person. Then, you need to gauge other people’s reactions when they realize the person you a referring to is a woman rather than a man. The exercise breaks down expectations.

“The book had interesting questions and helps you redefine who you are. I got to set my personal philosophies and principles through that book early on.”

One overriding lesson Kumar learned from his reading was to stay open-minded to new ideas. “You have to keep pace so your ideas and thoughts don’t get outdated. For instance, segregation 50 years ago wasn’t considered terrible for part of our society and now it is. Fifty years from now, it could be something else we consider acceptable today. If we don’t look at the past with modern eyes, we don’t move forward. We can’t stick with old ideas that don’t work.”

Kumar wanted to apply his passion for philosophy with research that was socially impactful and beneficial and combine it with his other interests including neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Kumar views that most depressive people fall into a sense of nihilism, and he began to craft his concept of null-nihilism - if everything is meaningless, then everything is the same. 

“So then sitting around and watching tv and eating potato chips for 24 days straight is the same as running a marathon. It’s fully your choice to do either one, and that is a subtle mindset change. I’m using nihilism to void itself.”

Kumar‘s paper “Null-Nihilism: defeating depression through the application of a novel existential philosophy” took inspiration from University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman who has studied happiness and rated depressive symptoms. Kumar compiled a test to measure individuals’ beliefs (a sample group of 250) over a period of time using a rating system of 10 being very depressed and 1 being devoid of depression.  After his testing, 80 to 90 percent of the sample group had an increase in happiness. 

Kumar wrote two other papers this summer which he has submitted to various journals. In one paper, “Optimizing innate adversarial robustness on image recognition models in high-risk scenarios,” Kumar investigated the corruption of pixels and code that create serious problems for AI. He explained that hackers can add static to an image by changing a pixel by a small fraction which goes undetected. He cited an example with self-driving cars. “You can’t tell the difference between a clean image and an attack image," he said. "The hackers can see how the computer learns what a stop sign is, and the hacker can change the pixel to a green light so that the vehicles crash when there is an update.”  Kumar created math code to fix that problem to prevent the system from being hacked.

His other paper, “Gated Memory Unit: a novel recurrent neural network architecture to improve sequential analysis,” looks at AI memory.

Clearly, Kumar made lemonade out of lemons during his sequestered time. 
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