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A look back: The courting of Google, circa 2006




It's been 10 years since a small group from Carnegie Mellon University snagged Google's attention as the tech behemoth scoured the globe for the perfect place to open its fifth satellite office. Here, a slice of East End life, pre-Google.

Donald Trump my have written “The Art of the Deal,” but he has nothing on a group of enterprising computer science professors at Carnegie Mellon University.

Google Inc.'s announcement last December that the company was opening a Pittsburgh office was the culmination of an 18-month courtship that traversed the country, finally landing the Wall Street darling in the Golden Triangle.

“Google’s had a long and happy relationship with CMU,” said Google spokeswoman Sonya Boralv. Although the company wanted to build on that relationship, the driving factor of their decision to relocate in Pittsburgh was, in fact, one person: Andrew Moore, a Carnegie Mellon professor of computer science until he became director of Google’s local office.

“We were really, really excited about hiring him. Pittsburgh has a really well-educated talent pool, and Andrew Moore is a great example of that talent pool,” says Boralv, who notes that “Andrew wanted to stay in Pittsburgh because he really likes the city and thinks it’s a great place to live."

One of the goals of the Pittsburgh Google office, Moore says, is to be a magnet for top talent in the area with plans to eventually hire more than 100 people. That’s good news for Lenore Blum, distinguished career professor at Carnegie Mellon, who helped bring Google to town. “We have all these superstars and then we lose them,” she says. “Now that Google is here, there’s the possibility of people staying.”

Certainly Carnegie Mellon is a big draw. During his visit to the campus last September, Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research, realized its worth. “The thing I was most impressed with was the location of the computer science office park and how close it was to the university. In Mountain View, we are four miles from Stanford, which is close, but it’s not 100 yards close. It got me thinking about all the missed opportunities to hear talks and collaborate."

Adds Boralv, “Google as a company has a long history of collaboration with CMU on a variety of projects.” 

Although the new Pittsburgh office -- Google’s fifth satellite -- is housed temporarily in One Oxford Center, it is likely to be permanently located on or near campus. Google has established offices in New York; Kirkland, Wash.; Santa Monica, Calif.; and Phoenix. One reason? It's  become increasingly difficult to recruit talent to their home office due to the high cost of housing in California. People visit, see how much house their money can buy and decide not to relocate there, says Norvig. “We had noticed we were making offers, and they were turning them down… We were having success hiring people right out of college, but when people were established with a house and family, it was harder to get them to move.”

He adds, “Certainly Pittsburgh is more affordable.”

It’s a win-win for talent that refuses to leave and for firms like Google. “CMU has a long history of being practical rather than theoretical,” Norvig says. “It’s hard to imagine a better partner.”

Case in point: the odyssey of luring Google began when the National Science Foundation awarded CMU a five-year, $5.5 million grant to start ALADIN (ALgorithmic ADaption, Dissemination and INtegration). ALADIN’s goal was to interface with companies and speed the transition of academic theory to business reality -- solve business problems fast.

Co-director Lenore Blum called Dr. Udi Manber, then chief scientist at Yahoo!, and asked him, “What kinds of problems does Yahoo! have that bright graduate students can solve?”

Blum recalls his answer was swift: Yahoo! needed a “sentinel at the door of chat rooms” that would let humans in, but not computers. Computers had infiltrated Yahoo!’s chat rooms collecting personal information and promoting products.

ALADIN’s solution was CAPTCHAs (short for Completely Automated Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart). CAPTCHAs perplex computers by distorting the font of simple words, or superimposing words on a busy background, making the text illegible for computers, but easily recognizable for humans. CAPTCHAs are now part of YAHOO’S registration process, and Microsoft, Google and E-Bay use similar puzzles to screen out computers.

“It’s turning human-computer interactions on its head,” says Lenore.

Dr. Manuel Blum, Lenore Blum’s husband, and graduate student Luis von Ahn expanded on CAPTCHA’s idea of using human common sense to solve complex computer problems by adding a game element.

“If you take the number of hours people put into playing solitaire,” says Manuel, “you could build the Panama Canal in something like five days.” And so Manuel and von Ahn developed Games with a Purpose. Their first game, the ESP Game, refines the labels of computer images.

If you type in “airplane,” Lenore explains as she scrolls through Google Images, you get pictures of airplanes, but you also get this vacation picture of people on an airplane.

The ESP Game refines those labels by randomly matching two players. Each time the players match image descriptions, they receive points. The higher the points, the higher their ESP.

“The goal is to label the photo with the same word,” says Lenore. Playing the game develops effective labels for web images.

Manuel Blum says he thought Google would be interested in the ESP Game, so about 18 months ago, he wrote to Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO.

“I heard he sent it around to other people, and boom! lots of people found it interesting,” says Manuel. Schmidt invited Manuel and von Ahn to present the ESP Game at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in December 2004. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s founders, were in the audience.

After the presentation, “we went into Larry Page’s office,” says Manuel with delight, “and there were Larry and Sergey playing the game.”

That presentation launched a dialogue about the use of the ESP Game, as well as a relationship with the Blums, von Ahn and other CMU faculty. When Google organized a faculty summit to be held in August 2005, Lenore and Manuel were invited to speak. During that conference, Lenore approached the Google founders with the idea of a Google lablet at CMU. (CMU currently has lablets, small collaborative think-tanks, with Apple and Intel.)

Dr. Randy Bryant, dean of CMU’s computer science school, says Page told Lenore, “’Think big about this. They made it evident they wanted something of size in Pittsburgh,” he adds.

Bryant says he also learned that Google was pursuing Andrew Moore, a CMU professor specializing in data mining, to come to work for them. “When we found that out, we started working together,” says Bryant.

Dennis Yablonsky, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Community and Economic Development, was involved from early August, says Tim McNulty, an associate provost at CMU and Yablonsky’s predecessor. Yablonsky says he wanted to provide Google, “a supportive business environment and the needed resources to ensure their success and growth in Pennsylvania.”

The efforts of the governor’s office and Yablonsky “sent an important signal (to Google) that they would be supported in the community,” says McNulty.

In September 2005, Norvig and Alan Eustace, Google’s vice president of research and systems engineering, visited the campus where they met with key CMU representatives about opening an office in Pittsburgh.

That presentation touted the computer science faculty, many of whom were known to Google, and their high-quality students. It built on the success of ALADDIN by committing to use academic research to help solve Google’s most pressing problems. The presentation referenced a New York Times article praising the “remaking” of Pittsburgh, and even recommended office locations utilizing Google Earth. Most of all, the team stressed that “Google could be king” in Pittsburgh because the region was under-tapped.

Less than six months later, Google arrived and Lenore Blum isn't skipping a beat. Now she is working to bring Microsoft and Yahoo! to town, seeking $5 million in funding for Project Olympus, a proposed high-tech center at CMU with 50 world-class post-graduate students. As for ALADDIN, the next project is tackling Web Spam, the annoying artificial inflation of web page rankings.

For many reasons, Google among them, Lenore is optimistic about the future of Pittsburgh -- a good thing since she, like Andrew Moore, is very happy living here. Having spent 20 years at the University of California at Berkeley, she says, “We’ve never been in a place that’s so collegial. People are so appreciative….It’s pretty wonderful, this place.”



Photographs throughout the story text copyright Tom Altany. The first interior photograph above is copyright Brian Cohen.


 
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