Google Americas Faculty Summit: Reflections from our attendees

July 19, 2011

Posted by Alfred Spector, Vice President, Research

Last week, we held our seventh annual Americas Computer Science Faculty Summit at our New York City office. About 100 faculty members from universities in the Western Hemisphere attended the two-day Summit, which focused on systems, artificial intelligence and mobile. To finish up our series of Summit recaps, I asked four faculty members to provide us their perspective on the summit, thinking their views would complement our own blog: Jeannette Wing from Carnegie Mellon, Rebecca Wright from Rutgers, Andrew Williams from Spelman and Christos Kozyrakis from Stanford.

Jeannette M. Wing, Carnegie Mellon University
Fun, cool, edgy and irreverent. Those words describe my impression of Google after attending the Google Faculty Summit, held for the first time at its New York City location. Fun and cool: The Library Wall prototype, which attendees were privileged to see, is a peek at the the future where e-books have replaced physical books, but where physical space, equipped with wall-sized interactive displays, still encourages the kind of serendipitous browsing we enjoy in the grand libraries of today. Cool and edgy: Being in the immense old Port Authority building in the midst of the Chelsea district of Manhattan is just plain cool and adds an edgy character to Google not found at the corporate campuses of Silicon Valley. Edgy, or more precisely “on the edge,” is Google as it explores new directions: social networking (Google+), mobile voice search (check out the microphone icon in your search bar) and commerce (e.g. selling soft goods on-line). Why these directions? Some are definitely for business reasons, but some are also simply because Google can (self-driving cars) and because it’s good for society (e.g., emergency response in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Japan). “Irreverent” is Alfred Spector’s word and sums it up—Google is a fun place to work, where smart people can be creative, build cool products and make a difference in untraditional ways.

But the one word that epitomizes Google is “scale.” How do you manage clusters on the order of hundreds of thousands of processors where the focus is faults, not performance or power? What knowledge about humanity can machine learning discover from 12 million scanned books in 400 languages that generated five billion pages and two trillion words digitized? Beyond Google, how do you secure the Internet of Things when eventually everything from light bulbs to pets will all be Internet-enabled and accessible?

One conundrum. Google’s hybrid model of research clearly works for Google and for Googlers. It is producing exciting advances in technology and having an immeasurable impact on society. Evident from our open and intimate breakout sessions, Google stays abreast of cutting-edge academic research, often by hiring our Ph.D. students. The challenge for computer science research is, “how can academia build on the shoulders of Google’s scientific results?”

Academia does not have access to the scale of data or the complexity of system constraints found within Google. For the good of the entire industry-academia-government research ecosystem, I hope that Google continues to maintain an open dialogue with academia—through faculty summits, participation and promotion of open standards, robust university relations programs and much more.

Rebecca Wright, Rutgers University
This was my first time attending a Google Faculty Summit. It was great to see it held in my "backyard," which emphasized the message that much of Google's work takes place outside their Mountain View campus. There was a broad variety of excellent talks, each of which only addressed the tip of the iceberg of the particular problem area. The scope and scale of the work being done at Google is really mind-boggling. It both drives Google’s need for new solutions and allows the company to consider new approaches. At Google’s scale, automation is critical and almost everything requires research advances, engineering advances, considerable development effort and engagement of people outside Google (including academics, the open source community, policymakers and "the crowd").

A unifying theme in much of Google’s work is the use of approaches that leverage its scale rather than fight it (such as MapMaker, which combines Google's data and computational resources with people's knowledge about and interest in their own geographic areas). In addition to hearing presentations, the opportunity to interact with the broad variety of Googlers present as well as other faculty was really useful and interesting. As a final thought, I would like to see Google get more into education, particularly in terms of advancing hybrid in-class/on-line technologies that take advantage of the best features of each.

Andrew Williams, Spelman College
At the 2011 Google Faculty Summit in New York, the idea that we are moving past the Internet of computers to an "Internet of Things" became a clear theme. After hearing presentations by Googlers, such as Vint Cerf dapperly dressed in a three piece suit, I realized that we are in fact moving to an Internet of Things and People. The pervasiveness of connected computing devices and very large systems for cloud computing all interacting with socially connected people were expounded upon both in presentations and in informal discussions with faculty from around the world. The "Internet of people" aspect was also evident in emerging policies we touched on, involving security, privacy and social networks (like the Google+ project). I also enjoyed the demonstration of the Google self-driving car as an advanced application of artificial intelligence that integrates computer vision, localization and decision making in a real world transportation setting. I was impressed with how Google volunteers its talent, technology and time to help people, as it did with its crisis response efforts in Haiti, Japan and other parts of the world.

As an educator and researcher in humanoid robotics and AI at a historically black college for women in Atlanta, the Google Faculty Summit motivated me to improve how I educate our students to eventually tackle the grand challenges posed by the Internet of Things and People. It was fun to learn how Google is actively seeking to solve these grand challenges on a global scale.

Christos Kozyrakis, Stanford University
What makes the Google Faculty Summit a unique event to attend is its wide-reaching focus. Our discipline-focused conferences facilitate in-depth debates over a narrow set of challenges. In contrast, the Faculty Summit is about bringing together virtually all disciplines of computer science to turn information into services with an immediate impact on our everyday lives. It is fascinating to discuss how large data centers and distributed software systems allow us to use machine learning algorithms on massive datasets and get voice based search, tailored shopping recommendations or driver-less cars. Apart from the general satisfaction of seeing these applications in action, one of the important takeaways for me is that specifying and managing the behavior of large systems in an end-to-end manner is currently a major challenge for our field. Now is probably the best time to be a computer scientist, and I am leaving with a better understanding of what advances in my area of expertise can have the biggest overall impact.

I also enjoyed having the summit at the New York City office, away from Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. It’s great to see in practice how the products of our field (networking, video-conferencing and online collaboration tools) allow for technology development anywhere in the world.

As per Jeannette Wing’s comments about Google being “irreverent,” I own up to using the term—initially about a subject on which Aristophanes once wrote (I’ll leave that riddle open). As long as you take my usage in the right way (that is, we’re very serious about the work we do, but perhaps not about all the things one would expect of a large company), I’m fine with it. There’s so much in the future of computer science and its potential impact that we should always be coming at things in new ways, with the highest aspirations and with joy at the prospects.