Look Who's Talking!
Buhl University Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer
Where are you from?
I’ve heard of a Siewiorek motto, can you elaborate
on "I reinvent myself every ten years" and what this means from
Have you heard of Moore’s law? The amount of memory, processor speed,
bandwidth, doubles every 12 to 18 months. In 10 years… it’s
a factor of 1000. So if I have that much more capability and that much
more opportunity, I have the possibility to do something previously thought
to be completely unrealistic a decade before. You want to be at the forefront
and do research that will have a big difference.
You’ve produced 58 PhD’s so far in your
career, which is a very high number. How does teaching compare to research
in your eyes, and what kind of equilibrium do you have between the two?
It’s something like a pyramid... think of breadth verses depth.
We use education projects such as the Rapid Prototyping Course to explore
the breadth and find interesting systems. When we find a gap in a technology,
we then have a great area for more in depth research that PhD students
How do you balance family and academics?
Well one is the compactness and family oriented environment of Pittsburgh.
One example is when both of my daughters were in high school and played
soccer. So I went over to watch their game, and then came back to Carnegie
Mellon. The biggest thing is making the family part of what you do. For
example I had my daughter and her best friend help assemble our first
wearable computer. My wife deserves the credit for maintaining the family
focus such as having the whole family home for dinner, and to make other
family times. Now my girls are into ultimate Frisbee, so my wife and I
go to their games. So basically we carve out some time each day, and each
year try to go on family trips, and learn what entices our daughters to
go on family vacations...exotic locations!
Your work has transitioned from reliability and multiprocessors,
to design & rapid prototyping, to human-centric design. How did these
progressions occur, and what was the motivation behind them?
Each one inspired the next. There’s a trajectory that I’ve
gone through… that in hindsight makes sense. When we first started
we were working on multiprocessors when Raj Reddy observed that if he
needed a single board computer with twice the memory of an existing computer,
it would take a designer six months to produce a new design. Why couldn’t
the design be done in 24 hours? After 3 PhD theses, 8 masters projects,
a dozen undergrad student projects, and about a decade, we were able to
meet Raj’s challenge. The MICON system, based on artificial intelligence
techniques was able to create a design from high-level specifications
in ten minutes and, coupled to a layered deposition manufacturing system,
fabricate the design in 24 hours. The results from that project inspired
work on wearable computers, and then after about 10 years, that inspired
even further work in HCI. By building systems we realize there are gaps
in our horizon. Over the years, what becomes important changes, and that
directs our research.
What is your academic background? Why did you choose
those areas, and do you feel that they prepared you for the breadth of
In elementary school I decided to go for electrical engineering. I didn’t
know what they did, but it sounded good, so I put it down on my college
application. Electrical engineering gave me a very broad background. You
could be almost anything... and I liked building things. Throughout my
undergrad years, I had a number of summer jobs that taught me what I didn’t
want to do. Computers weren’t that big at the time, but digital
design came easy to me, so I pursued courses in computer engineering –
before it was called that.
Where did you study and what steps did you take after
I went to University of Michigan for undergraduate, and Stanford for graduate
school. Angel Jordan came to Stanford to recruit saying there was an opening
in EE and CS here, and that they were looking for a joint appointment.
I found that Carnegie Mellon had a very strong relationship with Digital
Equipment Corporation, and was doing a lot of work in the computer field.
I really didn’t know any other university that was building systems
and putting them out into the field to get evaluated as Carnegie Mellon
How long have you been at Carnegie Mellon?
I’m sure you've had so many options and opportunities
in the past 35 years, why did you choose to stay at Carnegie Mellon for
the majority of your academic career?
Carnegie Mellon is very collegial, very innovative, and there are hardly
any barriers. If I want to work with someone in fine arts, I can do that.
People are very receptive to engineers, and if I want to do something,
I do not need to ask permission. There’s very little red tape.
I also love the students, they keep me young. They are always full of
energy, and the neatest thing about them is that they don’t know
what can’t be done. Students are not constrained by preconceived
notions that are often found in industry. On one hand, it's hard to see
them graduate, but it’s great to watch people grow. In our Rapid
Prototyping course you can see people grow and expand their horizons in
What other academic directions do you still want/plan
The human side of things is very important. In HCI we are now working
with and learning from cognitive psychologists, social scientists, and
designers. It’s great to have the opportunity to learn new areas
and new ideas. I want to build systems that work, and methods to measure
their impact. So basically exploring HCI from an engineering perspective.
What is the most interesting HCI project you have worked
I’m going to throw out a couple: Certainly, there have been some
pivotal ones. Maintenance of aircraft was an early driver in wearable
computers. The exciting projects are those that take you from school into
the actual workplace. You get to see how people currently do their job
and develop ways to improve on it.
Another project is trying to develop a cognitive assistant for office
workers - another system with a human in the loop. We are attempting to
bring together computer systems, and human interaction with AI. The human
isn’t interacting with the AI system – like in a chess game.
Instead, the AI offers human advice –without becoming an annoyance.
A partnership develops rather than the user trying to hide or get rid
of the assistant. I like projects that bring together groups that weren’t
together before. So the exciting thing for me is doing something advanced
that couldn’t be done with one field alone.
What major leaps do you think the HCI will take in the
next 5 years? If any..
I’m really fascinated by Marcel Just, who has been working with
functional MRI’s. He's been giving people tasks, and measuring what
part of the brain is affected. He found that there’s this capacity
in the brain, where if you have the brain do 2 simultaneous things, they
only get 70% accuracy, compared to 100% when doing them separately. So
going back to the multi processor, the brain doesn’t seem to know
how to take advantage of parallel processing. So maybe there are things
we know or can learn about processing that can help us learn how to use
our brain better. So when the brain is in cognitive overload, we can coach
the human to get out of overload and better use their time. But I think
that might take a little longer than 5 years, maybe a lot longer…
I think psychologists are calling this the century of the brain.
What are your hobbies or other interests?
Well first, I really enjoy what I do. I am an amateur history buff. I
like looking back at the World War Two generation and trying to see what
I can learn from them, it was a very generous generation. I really like
looking at historic technology. I was in Florence recently, and looking
at all the sculpture and diversity in artists in one place. It’s
a concentration of expertise, all the great artists in one spot…
and in some ways I feel like that’s what Carnegie Mellon is like.
And you can’t really see that research concentration anywhere else.
It’s a concentration where people learn from each other. I can borrow
something from ECE or Robotics and create a new system. It’s a very
rich place of ideas and individual pinnacles of excellence so you can
do so much more that by yourself.
When encountering a new technology that is less than intuitively obvious
to use - “The engineer who decided this should be shot”.