CMU partners with Yahoo for $10 million machine learning initiative

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An initiative to use Yahoo's data and Carnegie Mellon University's brain trust to build the smartphone apps of the future has launched with a multimillion-dollar jump start.

Project InMind -- a five-year, $10 million partnership between CMU and multinational Internet corporation Yahoo Inc. -- gives university researchers access to a "mobile toolkit" of Yahoo's real-time data services and its infrastructure in order to advance machine learning and personalization of smartphone apps.

Once new experimental mobile products are created, students and faculty on campus will be able to opt in as alpha testers.

Yahoo, CMU announce collaborative research project

Officials from Carnegie Mellon University and Yahoo have announced a collaborative research project that will allow for the development and testing of future smartphone apps. (Video by Andrew Rush; 2/12/2014)

The goal is to create customized services able to anticipate users' needs and interests on an ongoing basis, whether a user is at home playing video games or navigating the streets of a foreign country.

"This feels like the next very large step in a journey towards a grand dream of the far-flung future where computers will work in very close partnership with humans in ways that are very natural -- anticipating what people want at the right time in the right place, being very responsive to requests, being able to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, and also being very supportive and friendly rather than -- perhaps -- intimidating," said Ron Brachman, Yahoo Labs head and chief scientist, during a Wednesday news conference at CMU's Oakland campus.

The collaboration with the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Internet conglomerate is another feather in the cap of the university, which hosts Menlo Park, Calif.-based Google; Cupertino, Calif.-based Apple; and Burbank, Calif.-based Disney through its Robert Mehrabian Collaborative Innovation Center.

Under the new arrangement, a Yahoo-sponsored fellowship program for CMU students and faculty will support research in machine learning, mobile technologies, human computer interaction, personalization, novel interaction techniques and natural language processing. Yahoo fellows would receive financial support annually and ongoing mentoring through Yahoo Labs and from CMU faculty.

The partnership gives Carnegie Mellon default ownership of any intellectual property created at the university, with Yahoo retaining the option to license it. Any intellectual property developed at Yahoo will belong to the company, said Yahoo representative Lauren Whitehouse.

The mobile toolkit, described as a "living laboratory for researchers" in a CMU press release, will serve as a test space for machine learning algorithms designed to pick up on what's useful to users at a given time. Researchers will test their algorithms on the same platforms, using the same information that Yahoo uses to create apps it sends to the consumer market.

Partnering with Carnegie Mellon for the initiative was a must for Yahoo, added Mr. Brachman, noting that the nature of the arrangement will provide more give-and-take than standard partnerships with schools.

"In the past, like other big companies, we've given money and we've given servers and other things to universities. But in some ways this is a lot more appealing because it's an intellectual coupling between two institutions," he said.

Tom Mitchell, head of Carnegie Mellon's machine learning department, said the partnership opens up possibilities for research that students and faculty may have never experienced otherwise.

"If you have some idea about software to try out on a mobile device, just you and your two students don't have the infrastructure to do that. So this is a game-changer for us at the university, it rewrites what becomes possible for us to do," said Mr. Mitchell.

Although the project is still some time away from beta testing, researchers involved should have a prototype of the first product within a year, according to Randal E. Bryan, School of Computer Science dean.

When the time comes for the university to turn into a petri dish, Mr. Bryan said it will use several approaches to woo the 1,000 users needed for testing, including a plan to give away an unnamed mobile device to the first hundred volunteers.

No matter how the testing phase unfolds, the partnership is expected to bolster both parties standing in the arena of personalized computing.

Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652.

First Published February 12, 2014 12:02 PM

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