June 28, 2012

New hires catapult UW's expertise in machine learning and 'big data'

News and Information

A group of high-profile faculty recruits promise to make the University of Washington a leading institution for machine learning and the analysis of “big data.” Machine learning is an emerging area at the intersection of computer science and statistics, with wide application in science, industry, business, social sciences and medicine.

Clockwise from top left: Carlos Guestrin, Ben Taskar, Emily Fox and Jeff Heer.

Clockwise from top left: Carlos Guestrin, Ben Taskar, Emily Fox and Jeff Heer.

The UW’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering this spring recruited machine learning experts Carlos Guestrin, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and Ben Taskar, an associate professor at University of Pennsylvania, as well as data visualization expert Jeffrey Heer, currently an assistant professor at Stanford University.

Emily Fox, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, will join the UW’s Department of Statistics and will have an adjunct faculty appointment in Computer Science & Engineering.

“This changes the national landscape for machine learning,” said Hank Levy, chair of UW Computer Science & Engineering. “These incredible senior and junior faculty will put us in a whole new league in this pivotal area of computer science research.”

Guestrin and Fox are being hired with the help of a $2 million endowment from Amazon.com that established two Amazon Professorships in Machine Learning.

The modern world is awash in digital information. The quantity of this information is growing exponentially – the proliferation of digital databases, tiny sensors and widespread genetic sequencing will increasingly create more data than anybody can comprehend.

The emerging science of machine learning uses computers to automatically analyze the data, identify complex trends and then apply them to completely new situations.

The applications range from astronomy to zoology. Machine learning can analyze terabytes of data generated from computer simulations; place and monitor environmental sensors in forests or the ocean floor; pinpoint relationships between people’s DNA, their environment and their illnesses; and plan routes in real time for robots, airplanes or driverless cars.

In addition to machine learning and statistics, the incoming faculty members bring complementary expertise in data visualization, which helps humans to interact with and interpret complex data.

  • Guestrin‘s research includes developing machine learning algorithms that can run simultaneously on many computer processors. He has worked on extracting information from news articles, social networks and forest sensors. Guestrin has won an NSF CAREER award, a Sloan Research Fellowship, an IBM Faculty Fellowship, and a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.  He was on Popular Science’s “Brilliant 10″ list.
  • Taskar‘s interests in machine learning include helping computers to process visual information and to understand human language. He has won an NSF CAREER award, a Sloan Research Fellowship, and an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award. His work is also funded by Google and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
  • Heer uses understanding of the human brain to design interactive tools that help to understand and analyze large amounts of data. He won an NSF CAREER award, a Sloan Research Fellowship and Technology Review magazine’s TR35 award, given to the top technologists in the country under the age of 35.
  • Fox is an expert in Bayesian statistics, which combines past observations and current data. Her research has focused on human motion, stock prices and environmental sensors.  She received her doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before last year joining the statistics department at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

The new faculty members will work closely with the UW’s eScience Institute, which supports data-intensive research. They also will collaborate with current UW faculty who work in machine learning, data analysis, and computer vision.

“These senior hires are not just leaders in machine learning and data visualization – these are some of the top computer scientists of the past decade,” Levy said. “They could have gone anywhere. We’re excited that they recognized our department and region as one of the best places in the world to do this type of work.”

Guestrin and Fox will start this fall; Heer and Taksar will join the UW in 2013.

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For more information, contact Levy at 206-543-9204 or levy@cs.washington.edu.