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New SCS Dean interview

As of Aug. 15, Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science (SCS) has a new dean.

Martial Hebert, the former head of the Robotics Institute, was selected for the position by the 20-member Dean Search Committee, co-chaired by Professor Lorrie Cranor and Machine Learning Department head Roni Rosenfeld, with help from the executive search firm Isaacson, Miller.

Hebert will take over for former head Andrew Moore, who stepped down at the end of 2018 to rejoin Google as the head of its Cloud AI project. As the new dean, Hebert will oversee the seven departments making up SCS, including the Institute for Software Research (ISR), the Computer Science Department (CS), the Machine Learning department (ML), and Hebert’s own Robotics Institute (RI).

The Tartan sat down with Hebert last week to discuss his new role and his vision for the future of SCS. Hebert, who has been with RI since 1984, sees his appointment as an opportunity to “understand and appreciate all of the disciplines,” and connect those disciplines to the broader research being done at Carnegie Mellon. “I would love to see CS, and what we do in SCS, connecting to everything, basically…[not] just in terms of computer science providing a toolbox…[but] being able to link those tools, those ideas…to create new field[s], new disciplines.”

Hebert’s focus on interdisciplinary applications of computer science dovetails with that of Carnegie Mellon president Farnham Jahanian, whose bio describes Jahanian’s expertise in “advancing research and education within and across disciplines.” Hebert’s expertise extends in particular to artificial intelligence, the newest undergraduate major in SCS.

Hebert hopes to integrate AI technology into other research areas on campus by “looking at AI plus ‘X’…going further than just AI applied to ‘X’. Rather, seeing how we can go much further by seeing what this new field looks like.” Hebert gave the example of automating discovery, when scientists use AI to comb through scientific papers and look for new, untried research angles or previously unnoticed connections, as a “new way, basically, of thinking about how to do experimentation and discovery in science,” and one way in which AI is already reshaping an academic discipline.

Carnegie Mellon has been at the forefront of AI research for years, including the creation of the first AI computer program in 1956, as well as “pioneering work in self-driving cars, facial recognition and natural language processing,” according to a university press release about the creation of the AI major, the first undergraduate program of its kind offered by a U.S. university.

That press release stressed that the AI major “would include a strong emphasis on ethics and social responsibility.” According to the program webpage, this “strong emphasis” is one required ethics elective out of 32 total courses, which students can choose from “Freshman Seminar: Artificial Intelligence and Humanity”, “Ethics and Policy Issues in Computing”, and “AI, Society, and Humanity”.

AI technology, with its revolutionary potential, has faced ethical criticism on privacy and humanitarian grounds, with its use for automation and by law enforcement agencies and the military sparking backlash from workers and activists, something that Herbert addresses by saying that “on the education level, we need to inject those concepts of ethics at basically all levels.” He adds that “it needs to be more pervasive, it needs to be more structured, but it’s already a part of the education,” referring to the required ethics course.

Career placement for CS graduates is another consideration for Herbert, given that 50% of CS undergrads who did not pursue further education went to work for just 4 companies (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon). An increase in the diversity of placement “would be great to have,” but that he has noticed that “a much larger proportion of students stay here locally, in the local companies, local branches of companies, so that’s an interesting evolution.” He has noticed that more students are staying in Pittsburgh for summer internships, a “stunning change” from the usual Bay Area or Boston tech scenes.

While Hebert is “excited about everything at this school,” he stressed the unique intersection at SCS between “the entire spectrum of [computer science] research,” and research from the most fundamental to the most applied. His main goal, however, is to expand the possibilities of computer science. He says, “most people have a restricted view, of what it means when we say computer science. Which is kind of boring, kind of a small toolbox, you know. You want to have a much more expansive viewpoint.”