Hanging with a genius: Honored CMU professor loves 'CSI,' misses Guatemalan food

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Computer scientist Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, just keeps raking in the honors. Last year's included a $500,000 MacArthur "genius" grant and a spot on Popular Science magazine's "Brilliant 10" list.

Now the Guatemala-born researcher has been named one of the nation's top young innovators by Smithsonian magazine. The editors were impressed by his "games with a purpose," in which online players have fun while helping solve larger problems, such as how to make computers "think" more like people.

Not bad for a 29-year-old.

The Post-Gazette met up with Dr. von Ahn and his fiancee, Laura Dabbish, at their rented apartment in the South Side Lofts to get a sense of his personal side.

Ms. Dabbish, 29, who studies human-computer interaction, is also an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon. That's where the couple met, in class on their first day of graduate school.

The first paradox became apparent upon arrival: the self-described computer geek hasn't figured out how to use his phone to buzz people into the building -- and he's lived in the place for a year. So when someone rings the intercom, he walks down the corridor and opens the door.

After the couple's West Highland white terrier, Bonny, settles down from her enthusiastic greetings, Dr. von Ahn fills in the blanks.

Least-favorite topic: History. It's boring.

Fantasy career: Detective. I'm a big fan of "CSI" on TV; I'd love to solve crimes.

Best thing about being a MacArthur genius: People think everything I say is intelligent, even though it's not true.

How he spent the MacArthur money: I haven't spent it. They don't give it to you all at once, it's $25,000 every three months. So far I've gotten $75,000. I'm trying to figure out what to do with it.

When's the wedding? We've slid on the date two or three times already. We never seem to have the time.

Next big purchase: A home, the closer to Carnegie Mellon the better. Shadyside. Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze. We've been looking for a year. Everything is either falling down and needs too much fixing, or it's completely overpriced.

How you start your day: We wake up about 8 a.m., which is late for the rest of the world but early for computer scientists. I check my e-mail for a half-hour, walk the dog, check e-mail again, shower and go to Carnegie Mellon.

No breakfast? No coffee, no breakfast. I'm still transitioning from student life, where there is no breakfast and you eat all the free food you can find.

Favorite Pittsburgh hang-out: I like the Point Brugge Cafe and D's SixPax & Dogz on Braddock Avenue. A lot of computer scientists hang out there.

What you miss most about Guatemala: Family, friends and the food. Guatemalan food is very similar to Mexican, and there are very few good, authentic Mexican restaurants here.

Favorite music: Nothing before 1980 -- not just music but movies, too. I'm not saying it's a good thing, it's just the way I am. I do like the South American group Mana.

Favorite time-waster: IM-ing. I should not be using it.

What you worry about: My diet is atrocious, mainly due to lack of time. If we had our act together, we could shop and cook, but we basically don't.

Annoying habit: I speak loudly. (Ms. Dabbish's answer: He paces.)

Worst quality in a student: Not being resourceful. I like to just say "Do X" and have them figure out how. A lot of people are very eager to fail at their tasks.

Always in his cupboards: Carbonated lemonade and salsa.

Book currently on the bed stand: I don't read many books. I'm a slow reader, and I decided a while ago it takes too much time. If it's for entertainment, I'd much rather watch TV or a movie.

Where he'd like to go more often: Schenley or Frick Park, eating in the Strip District.

Favorite retreat: I like south Florida. Miami.

Most fun recent purchase: My iPhone.

Favorite computer brand: I have no brand loyalty. I have a small Sony Vaio right now, but I have others, too.

Favorite artist: I recently met Dale Chihuly and his wife. I really like his work.

Favorite gadget: The wireless clicker I use for slide show presentations.

Favorite travel: I travel way too much as it is for speaking and lectures -- 75,000 miles so far this year. I'm tired of it.

Best thing about Pittsburgh: Besides Carnegie Mellon? The city is not overbearing like New York, but it's big enough that you can find anything you want.

Except Mexican restaurants: Yes, except that.

Main self-indulgence: Expensive restaurants. I like Casbah, the Red Room and Soba. Pittsburgh needs more expensive restaurants if you ask me.

If he could have dinner with anyone in history: Alan Turing. He basically invented the computer.

Hero: The Google guys, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Best recent gift: Nintendo Wii, before we broke it. It was our own fault. But it was really awesome when it worked.

Perfect weekend: Doing nothing. Zero.

Biggest paradox: I don't read instructions. Even with computers, I end up taking the long way around when if I just read the instructions things would be faster. I'm going to be that old guy who doesn't know how to use the TV.

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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