Love and marriage: How the UW is making bets on the brains of ‘big data’ and ‘machine learning’

Carlos Guestrin and Emily Fox are moving to the UW as part of a big hiring push in the CSE department.

Computer science is very much a discipline that revolves around numbers. But it was something a little less mathematical that led to the University of Washington strengthening its computer science department in recent months: Love, marriage and friendship.

In no fewer than three separate situations, the UW’s computer science department was able to attract world-class professors in “big data,” “machine learning” and “visual data analysis” by finding work at the UW or other opportunities for their spouses.

The new hires — including Carlos Guestrin from Carnegie Mellon University; Ben Taskar from The University of Pennsylvania; and Jeff Heer from Stanford University — come as a package deal with equally talented spouses who will be contributing to the UW or Seattle tech community in other ways.

Jeff Heer and Daniela Rosner

For example, Guestrin’s wife, Emily Fox, an assistant professor in the Department of Statistics at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, will join the UW Statistics department. And Daniela Rosner, who is completing her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley’s Information School, will join the UW’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering.

Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington, said the collection of the new staffers is simply extraordinary. He called Guestrin, Taskar and Heer ”instant-impact head-turners,” noting that top computer science programs “are salivating” and wondering how the UW pulled off what amounts to a trifecta.

“It has been a real head-turner nationally, and it puts us in an entirely different place in the key area of machine learning and big data,” said Lazowska of the new hires. In some cases, the UW was able to beat out competing offers from the likes of MIT, Penn, Stanford and others.

Ben Taskar

The top-notch recruiting efforts of UW computer science chair Hank Levy certainly played a role in attracting the scientists, with Lazowska calling his colleague the “best recruiter in the country.”

But there were other factors at play too. For one, Lazowska noted that the Seattle tech community rallied behind the effort to hire the professors and researchers. Within 48 hours of receiving an email from Lazowska, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos got his company to provide $2 million to endow two professorships in machine learning for Fox and Guestrin.

Bezos met with the researchers, and corresponded with them via email, adding to the appeal of the Seattle tech and research community.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Research’s Peter Lee — the former head of computer science at Carnegie Mellon — hosted a dinner with Fox and Guestrin along with well regarded Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz.

“We hired these superstars through Seattle community effort,” said Lazowska. “And also because Hank (Levy) worked his tail off.”

Ed Lazowska

The state legislature also played a part, allocating $3.8 million to engineering fields during the faculty recruiting season. Without that money, the push would not have been possible.

The new hires could have a big impact, not only boosting the UW computer science department’s credibility, but also adding strength in the key areas of machine learning and big data. Those are two of the hottest areas in tech right now.

“The world is increasingly data driven – we’re producing enormous amounts of data as a result of new devices (e.g., mobile phones), new sensors all around us, enormous simulations of natural processes,” explains Lazowska via email.  ”Machine learning is helping us to understand this data and to make predictions and decisions based on it.   Therefore, advances in machine learning are having an enormous impact not only on computer science … but also in physical and social sciences, in medicine and health, in industry, in commerce, on the internet, etc.   So, increasing our strength in machine learning will have impact on the future of the University of Washington and also for local industry.”