Focused Research Awards grant professors $2 million for study

Sabrina Porter Feb 14, 2010

Carnegie Mellon professors were big winners with Google last Tuesday, receiving three of Google’s 12 first-ever Focused Research Awards. The awards totaled $5.7 million, of which Carnegie Mellon professors received $2 million in funding. The grants are unrestricted, set to last for two to three years, and come with access to all of Google’s technologies.

The three winning Carnegie Mellon research teams were all awarded funding for different areas of specialization. Google has identified machine learning, privacy, use of mobile phones as data collection devices, and energy efficient computing as four areas in which the company is interestied in encouraging new research.

Tom Mitchell, head of the machine learning department; William Cohen, associate research professor in machine learning; and Christos Faloutsos and Garth Gibson, both professors of computer science, were awarded $1 million over two years for their plans to create the world’s largest Internet database. The grant comes with a possibility of an extra $500,000 toward the end of their project, after a review.

The team plans to extract as many as 25 million facts from the Internet to contextualize in their database.

“The long-term goal of this work is to collect large amounts of ‘common sense’ information from the web and make it available. Hopefully this will impact how people build intelligent programs in the future,” Cohen said.

The team hopes that their database will return answers to broad research questions such as “Who is the most famous person related to CMU?” and “Which location in Pennsylvania stands out from the rest and why?” according to Faloutsos.

While Faloutsos and his team focused on searching the Internet, another Carnegie Mellon group zeroed in on Internet privacy concerns.

Lorrie Cranor, associate professor of computer science and engineering and public policy; Norman Sadeh, professor of computer science; and Alessandro Acquisti, associate professor of information technology in the Heinz College received $400,000 for their work on Internet privacy.

“We’re hoping to gain important insights into privacy-related behavior and develop tools that will provide ‘nudges’ to help people protect their privacy,” Cranor said.

The grant combines three different areas of expertise on the part of all three professors, according to Sadeh.

“Lorrie has spent many years working on the Platform for Privacy Preferences and more recently on studying usability issues,” Sadeh said. “[Acquisti] has been studying behavioral biases in people in the context of security and privacy decision. My personal focus has been more on the development of technologies to empower users to more effectively specify complex privacy policies with a particular focus on mobile and social networking applications.”

The privacy study will integrate behavioral economics, human computer interaction, and artificial intelligence in nudging users toward privacy protection mechanisms.

While this team is promoting and investigating smart computing, the third group of Carnegie Mellon professors is looking at the physical computers themselves.

David Andersen and Mor Harchol-Balter, associate professors of computer science have received $100,000 to continue their work on creating energy-efficient computer clusters.

Andersen spoke very positively about working with Google. “We received initial feedback within two weeks of submitting the grant, and notification of the award within a month. It’s the fastest grant turn-around I’ve ever experienced. We really enjoyed it,” he said. “We’ve both worked with Google engineers in the past, and we’re glad to be able to continue doing so.”

The team plans to use Harchol-Balter’s experience in queuing theory and Andersen’s past systems research to address the scaling problems related to creating more energy-efficient clusters.

“Datacenter energy efficiency is hugely important, whether you measure the impact in the green of dollars or the green of the environment,” Andersen said. “Happily, it’s one of those areas where you get both of them: reduced costs and reduced environmental impact.”

Andersen, Harchol-Balter, and the other professors receiving awards will have the opportunity to work with Google in the coming years.

This research grant program is one of Google’s many outreach programs, which include over 150 research grants and a Graduate Fellowship Program started just last year for graduate students doing specialized research.