Interview with Raj Reddy

Raj Reddy

Pilot turned Professor, Professor turned Super-Researcher. Raj Reddy has the personal background one would never see behind the modest exterior--find out about his childhood in India, his adventures as a pilot in the Indian ROTC, and his life now as a world-renown scientist..


---Who is Raj Reddy?--


Most SCS students are curious to know who you are. Undoubtedly, everyone knows your name, but very few students know what you do, have done, or what you are about. Can you tell me a little about what exactly you do and what your current position at CMU is?

I'm what they call a University Professor and I've been here now for 33 years. I came from Stanford where I was an Assistant Professor in the 1960s. I came here in 1969, and I've been here ever since. Most of what I do is in the area of artificial intelligence. In particular, computers that can speak, hear, see, and walk and so on. 10 years after I got here, we started the Robotics Institute. I was the first director of the Robotics Institute, and it has grown so much now. The School of Computer Science grew in a similar way--when I came, there were probably only 3 full professors--and now we have a college which has about 120 faculty members, about half on tenure track and the other half research faculty. So we are large compared to many other departments and schools. In fact I believe we may be one of the largest colleges with the largest annual budget--but most of it is research budget!

I was also the Dean [of the School of Computer Science] for about 10 years, and I stepped down from being the Dean two or three years ago and Jim Morris, who used to be the Head of the Department of Computer Science, took over as Dean. I'd have been happy to get back to my research, but it turned out that our West Coast campus had started, and they needed someone to help out for it, and so I became the Director of the West Coast campus about 2 years ago.

My main research right now has been focused in a couple of areas, but I have been spending a lot of time on this "Million Book Digital Library Project." It turns out the technology is there for us to be able to capture all the books in the world and make it available to everyone in the world. This has been an interesting problem for almost 30 years-my advisor, John McCarthy first suggested a version of it--he said we're producing all the PhD theses online, so why don't we just put them all online? This was 30 years ago, and at that time the desk top publishing was not invented, laser printers capable of printing many different fonts and colors were not there, and so it was mainly upper and lower case characters. Since then, we have reached a stage where we can print picture perfect images of pages of any book or painting. So what we're now doing as a 3-country joint project between the US, China, and India, is to scan a million books and make them available, free to read for anyone, online. In fact there are already a lot of books online, like all the classics--Dickens, Austin, Shakespeare, etc. are all free to read. Even so, many people still prefer to read a physical copy of a book…and we are now at a point where if someone needs a physical copy, they can get it printed out and bound as a really good physical copy. But the actual idea behind the project is to put it online so if you happen to be in Timbuktu, and you needed a book, today, you have to wait 6-months to get it through Inter-Library Loan. With Universal Digital Library you can immediately go read it, and if you need a hard copy you can go to a local Kinko's and they will print it and bind it for you for a couple of dollars. So that's the basic idea, the whole printing and binding process takes about twenty minutes, and the cost of the paperback version is only about $1 per book!

You mentioned you are working closely with the Carnegie Mellon West project. Can you describe what you do there and how the school is developing?

Basically, right now it is like any other start up company. It is small, and we have a few buildings that NASA has given us, like a campus. And now what we're trying to do is start educational programs there--these are all Masters level programs--we have Software Engineering, E-Commerce, and we are about to start Networking and Security--these are all Graduate programs. We also have research programs. Like anything else, when you are starting a brand new activity, there are a lot of little details. The trick is hire good people and give them a lot of flexibility and authority so that things will get done even if you're not physically there-so that's what I do! Try to empower people and find them resources! [Carnegie Mellon West]

What's a day in your life like?

Because of the internet and connectivity, you are all the time working with people all around the country. So today for example, we are sending out a proposal to NSF [National Science Foundation]. This is being sent by Mel Siegel, Chuck Thorpe, Robotics Grad student M. Bernardine Dias, and I'm kind of part of it. So what we're sending out is what we call "Technology Peace Corps". And if it gets funded, it will be an option for undergraduates and graduates in a technical field to go to a third world country and live in a village for 2-3 months to find a socially relevant problem which could be solved through the use of technology. But you're not just acting like a peace-corps person-instead, you are looking at the problems and asking which of these problems can I solve with technology?

I'm also always trying to think about research problems that are solvable. For example, with all the concerns about terrorists, there is this security issue, and it turns out we have built this thing called an "Autonomous Land Vehicle"--a car that drives itself--and you can have this car that continuously goes around with a police siren and everything, but there is no person in it! And maybe there are 10 cars, with only one having a person in it--so you don't know which has a person and which is autonomous! But these things don't just navigate--they are continuously monitoring what's happening--and if it turns out there's something going on that's not supposed to be there, they can call the one person who is a real person to investigate--or do all sorts of other things as well. So every problem you come across, there are probably some really interesting technology based solutions.

What do you like best about your job?

The flexibility. The great thing about working here at Carnegie Mellon is that you are always surrounded by brilliant people who are thinking about great new ideas--and you get caught up in that. That's what makes great universities, and Carnegie Mellon in particular, a great place to stay.

What do you like least about your job?

There is nothing I don't like about my job--and I'll tell you why--if I don't like something, I don't do it…and nobody tells me I have to do it!


--A Little More Background--

Do you currently teach any classes?

No, I haven't been teaching for the past few years. I used to but I stopped after I stopped being the Dean. I used to teach the Multimedia Information Processing course. And I think that course still needs to be done and we might restart it.

Do you ever feel like you would like to go back to teaching?

I would like to go back to teaching anytime, my main problem is that one of the main reasons I quit teaching is that I was the Co-Chair of the PITAC [President's Information Technology Advisory Committee] under both Clinton and Bush--and as you get older and you get sucked into all these National Committees, and so what happens is that you are not here nearly a third of the time-so you miss classes, and it's not fair to the students. I do guest lectures and seminars, but I have not taken on any responsibilities for an entire course, mainly because of the unpredictability of my schedule.

What do you think about the SCS students?

I think they are wonderful. I'm sorry we didn't do the undergraduate program sooner--we would have, but for all kinds of political and financial reasons we couldn't do it--but I think we get the best young students, and I'm looking for them to become the super stars of the next ten, twenty years, which I'm sure they will be. The trick is for us to give them the opportunity and the idea/solution base in which they can grow and do things in a way that they would not be able to do anywhere else.

We are very fortunate to have dedicated faculty like Mark Stehlik and Jim Roberts--I think they are outstanding in what they do--if they are willing to spend their life doing this, nurturing the students, giving them advice, and being there to talk to them, I think they are doing a fantastic job. I have the highest respect for Lenore Blum--we were so happy to get her--she has transformed this place, because she is a role model as a person, and she is able to create a special enthusiasm--I have been after everyone for the last 15 years to do a better website [for the School of Computer Science], and then Jim Morris gave the job to Lenore and Carol [Frieze], and they've done a terrific job. It's a pleasure to see the website now--in the old days, I'd say 'my God, this is boring!' When I go to look for something and it's not obvious how to find it, then I think there is something wrong with the design. But I think you guys have done a great job.

From all the experiences you have had, whether it be with teaching, research, or other events, what has been your most cherished memory?

The most interesting memory that I didn't solicit, but it happened, is that in 1984, President Mitterand of France came to Pittsburgh. I had met him a couple of times before that because I was working in Paris for a while, but he came all the way here and he gave me this Legion of Honor Medal, and I had no clue it was going to happen. It was an exciting time, and I think the University enjoyed the particular scenario--having the President of a country to come-it was great. For him to choose to honor one of the members of the community, I think, was also great. There was no reason for me to ever think that would happen, but it happened, and that was good. Another recent cherished experience is receiving the Padmabhushan award [from the President of India, K. R. Narayanan].

How do you feel about being under the spotlight so much? Would you like more privacy sometimes?

I don't think I'm under that much of a spotlight--I don't like the spotlight, but on the other hand, I think I'm in the perfect place. If I were a politician, or an actor, or a very visible scientist, then you're under a lot more demands.I think I'm in a place in which I can choose to ignore requests and not do things that I don't want to do, and people won't think I'm a jerk or something [Laughs].

So in general, I don't seek the spotlight, and I don't think I'm in the spotlight that much--occasionally you are, for example in 1997, I was giving one of the talks at the 50th Anniversary of ACM, there were 3000 people there (in San Jose, CA), and I didn't have any problem giving the talk, and I didn't think much about it afterwards, but you just do it, and then you forget about it and hope that people forget the spotlight and you are kind of back to your little cocoon [Laughs].

--Beyond the Obvious--

Are you married and do you have and children?

Yes. I've been married happily for 37 years. My wife and I both come from India. We have two daughters who both live in Silicon Valley, California. One was born at Stanford and the other one was born here in Pittsburgh.

What's your favorite color?

I have no idea. I've never thought about it. But I guess blue is as good as anything else!

What's your favorite place in the world?

There are two favorite places. One was the Taj Mahal and the other Ajanta Ellora [India]. I've been to other places, Greece, Venice, Paris, and everywhere else--they are all very nice, but with these two, I had no idea what I would see. From every moment I was amazed and surprised that there was a time when there were people who were able to do those things. The Ajanta caves aren't really caves--it's not a cave--they took a mountain and dug into it many whole residences. So it's a cave in that sense, but it's a man made cave. Inside there they have elaborately painted frescos and as I said, I had no idea! And then the Ellora, out of a single rock, they have actually carved an entire temple--that means you couldn't have even made one mistake because you can't glue it back or anything! Those kinds of things I had no idea could be done or would be done! I was very proud to be there and see those things. The same is true with the Taj Mahal also.

If you didn't go into academics or administration, what would you have done in another life?

I used to be a pilot. And probably, if I had not gone into academics, I would have ended up as a pilot in the Air Force or something-in the Indian air force-the Indian ROTC. That was a long time ago. I used to fly these bi-planes, and I used to do aerobatics and all kinds of things. I stopped flying after I got married. But you never know what you might have done. In some sense, there are many things that we want to do but are not able to do or be competent in--so you just do the things where you get an opportunity.

What's your favorite holiday and why?

My favorite holiday is to go to a beach and sit under a large beach umbrella, out of the sun. And simply not do anything and read a book.

What about any favorite festivals?

Sankranti [an Indian festival], so basically, when I was young, those were the best festivals--we used to make huge bonfires and had new clothes, got dressed, and ate all kinds of exotic foods--you know, this only happened once a year, and that was a wonderful time!

What hobbies or passions do you have outside of work?

Not many. I read books. So if you come on a Saturday or Sunday, you are likely to find me at work, but if your work is your hobby, it's all the same.

What motto/philosophy do you live life by?

Do no harm.