Look Who's Talking!
SCS web team member Renee Rivas, conducted this phone interview with
married couple and CSD Alumni, Yolanda Gil and
Kevin Knight, who met right here as PhD students
For them both Carnegie Mellon has a unique quality... where knowledge
is exchanged at such high levels, you learn so much about so many different
areas. "And I think Newell and Simon, among others, should be recognized
for creating that great atmosphere."
||Dr. Yolanda Gil (Y)
CS PhD, 1992
Associate Division Director for Research
Intelligent Systems Division/ISI and Research Associate Prof.
Dept. Computer Science, USC
Dr Kevin Knight (K)
CS PhD, 1992
Project Leader, ISI/USC
Research Associate Prof.
Department of Computer Science,
Where are you from?
Y: Madrid, Spain
K: Baton Rouge, Louisiana (as of two weeks ago,
the largest city in Louisiana!)
What attracted you to Carnegie Mellon?
Y: During my undergraduate classes in Madrid,
I had a class on AI mostly focused on logic. I became curious on how to
use logic and its relationship to thinking and began reading articles.
I read a lot of Newell Simon’s work, and many other articles that
came from Carnegie Mellon. That’s where my initial interest started.
K: I was very interested in computers and how
they process language, and the Computational Linguistics Program and research
What was your favorite class and why?
K: These are the old days, we didn’t have
Y: We had classes…
K: Well, I didn’t go to those! But they
were AI, software, and theory. They gave you readings at the beginning
of the semester so you didn’t really need to go to class.
Y: The rest of us did go to class. Actually he
did go to at least one, that’s where Kevin made his first impression
on me. In a lecture about logic, Kevin was sitting next to me and looked
totally out of it. At some point someone asked about parallelizing reasoning
algorithms and the professor didn’t know the answer. Kevin raised
his hand and gave this lengthy, detailed and very informative answer.
I was impressed.
My favorite class was and still is, I actually still look up the class
readings, Herb Simon’s “Cognitive Processes and Problem Solving”
class. I loved his style, and the way he made every aspect related to
human thinking interesting. He was very engaging in lectures and in his
answers to questions. I felt I learned a lot about the topic, as well
as about teaching, and how to love the data you have and turn it into
What club/sport/activity were you most active or most
K: The pretty good race, held by the CS department.
I loved cross country running.
Y: I was not very big on clubs, but while writing
my thesis…I remember it was a very hard process, working maybe 20
hrs a day on it…we would go running on the new track at midnight
or 1am. It would be so peaceful and deserted, one of the few times in
my life that I enjoyed doing physical activity. It would clear my mind,
and I have a very solid memory of the track at night, it was beautiful.
Most memorable event/adventure?
Y: …(pause)…I have hundreds; one of
the things is that CMU has so many interesting people. I just visited
CMU a few days ago, and as I was walking through the hallways I would
recall many conversations and people. Also, there was a seminar on Cognitive
Architectures. And during it I had this feeling I was at a very special
place and time that would never be reproduced.
K: I can’t pinpoint anything.
What was the best thing about living in Pittsburgh?
Y: Coming from Spain it was a culture shock. It
was either too hot or too cold and people don’t like to stroll in
the streets, and I was never too fond of it.
K: It was the Squirrel Cage (a bar in Squirrel
Hill)…that’s about it.
opportunities do you feel you had at Carnegie Mellon that you wouldn't
have had at another university?
K: There was such a wide variety of students and
topics I haven’t seen since anywhere else. Looking back at the conversations
I had with senior grad students and officemates were at such high levels
that it allowed me to learn so much about many different areas. And that’s
a very unique thing.
Y: Similarly, I remember not many specific events,
but an overall constant stream of great conversations like Kevin described.
There’s a special thing that happens there where knowledge is exchanged
at high rates, and I haven’t seen that or any other place. And I
think Newell and Simon, among others, should be recognized for creating
that great atmosphere.
How do you think Carnegie Mellon helped prepare you
to meet your professional challenges?
K: One thing I learned was how to be very reasonable
in a research context. Whenever I run into a CMU grad, they always have
a very easy going manner and they have this special way of working with
each other. The research culture was very open in conversation and conflicts,
and encouraged us to be reasonable.
Y: Allen Newell said to me that he spent a lot
of time on his personal research but spent at least the same amount of
time helping the research community.” And I have certainly taken
on that sense of service from him. He taught me that no matter what talk
or research you listen to, even if you don’t quite understand it
or don’t think they are looking at it in the right way, you should
never dismiss it. Always try to help them because it benefits everyone.
From your experience in research, what do you think
will be the next technological revolution?
K: Language translation, conversing with people
on the phone even if you don’t speak their language or browsing
a webpage that would automatically be translated into English, despite
the original language.
Y: I don’t know whether it will be the next
one or not, but when all computation becomes user centered computing.
Where the center of everything is not the computer and us working around
a spreadsheet or program to get anything done, but when there is no computer
on the desk. When you think of something at work, it will digitally appear
on the desk or pop up. If I’m in the kitchen and I’m thinking
about taking my kids somewhere on Saturday, a calendar will pop up on
the counter or on my watch. So basically when we are the center, and not
Moving on to less academic areas…
What is your favorite food?
K: Poptarts!!…cinnamon with frosting.
Y: I enjoy a good meal, I’d rather have
a steak than a cake.
What are your passions/hobbies?
K: Surfing and pool.
Y: Enjoying my kids every minute I have and keeping
them out of trouble.
What is a place you always dreamed about visiting in
college? … have you gone there?
K: Japan, and I went there a couple years ago
for business and pleasure. A good thing about our job is we can go to
conferences and meetings all over the world.
Y: In grad school I always dreamed of a place
where I would go to work and have a lot of fun, come home to a nice family
and have a lot of friends/neighbors to enjoy life with. The latter is
what I experienced more in Madrid, and I think the place I always dreamed
of is where I’m in now.
Where did you two meet?
K: I asked Yolanda if she knew if I could buy
a bike using the CMU bboard.
Y: We were in the same PHD entering class, 1986,
in the CS department. And I remember him asking me, and I knew how to
do it and I was really happy that I knew something he didn’t. But
I found out later that he knew.
your current position and its roles and responsibilities.
Y: We work in the same place and have similar
jobs only on different topics and projects. I lead projects, write proposals,
organize work. I’m always interested in new areas and challenging
topics so I enjoy formulating topics and organizing the work that gets
carried out. I also work with students and their theses. A lot of my projects
are collaborative. 10 yrs ago I would work solo or only with one group.
Now I work with 8 or 10 other groups throughout the country.
K: We’re basically research entrepreneurs,
we come up with an idea, figure out how to get it funded, make teams of
researchers and solve problems. Then deliver theorems, or pieces of software,
or breakthroughs that other scientists can use to advance their own work.
What research projects are you currently working on?
Y: My recent focus, or passion, is trying to help
scientists in many areas conduct large and complex experiments and analysis
by composing many software models. We formulate scientific workflows that
represent those scientific computations. This is a very user centered
problem where scientists can simply specify the components they want and
the system can then make sense of these new workflows. It’s very
multi-disciplinary and challenging, and in turn very fun.
K: I’m working on machine translation, both
written and spoken. Now, you can watch a newscast in some language, and
the machine gives you a written translation with a couple minutes delay.
So it helps people who want to watch foreign newscast.
Favorite thing about California?
K: The beach.
Y: Everything! The landscape is very similar to
Spain, the whether is fantastic, and the beach being so close is just
unbeatable. Also, all the people love to stroll in the streets.
K: "When I was young, I would rather give
a lecture on mathematics than
listen to one. Now that I am older and more mature I would rather
give two lectures on mathematics than listen to one." -- R. H. Bing,
Y: “I have a microwave fireplace, I can
stand in front of the fire all night in only five minutes.” That’s
sort of what I do all the time, I love to squeeze the most out of everything
I do in the least amount of time.