Q&A: A New Home for CS at ’SC

Cyrus Shahabi, chair of USC Viterbi’s Department of Computer Science, on what the new Ginsburg building means for collaboration

Cyrus Shahabi (Photo/Will Taylor)

Cyrus Shahabi, distinguished professor of computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and spatial sciences, chairs USC Viterbi’s Computer Science Department. The holder of the Helen N. and Emmett H. Jones Professorship in Engineering, Shahabi also serves as director of the Integrated Media Systems Center and the Informatics Program. He spoke to senior writer Marc Ballon about the future of computing at USC and beyond.

What about the new Dr. Allen and Charlotte Ginsburg Human-Centered Computation Building most excites you?

There are so many aspects to be excited about, it’s hard to pick just one! As chair of the department, I am excited that, for the first time, we will have all the computer science faculty together in one building, as well as a dedicated space for computer science students. I am especially excited about the collaboration spaces throughout the building, the new lab spaces, office-hour rooms, discussion spaces and student organization spaces.
As a faculty member, I’m thrilled that the building will offer us an extraordinary opportunity for cross-collaboration, both within computer science and across disciplines, to come up with new and innovative ideas. As a scientist, I am excited that the building itself is a “living lab” to study sustainability, fitted with numerous sensors and actuators, producing data that can be analyzed to control the indoor environment optimally, with little waste.

How will the Ginsburg Building improve the teaching and practice of computer science at USC Viterbi?

One key observation from remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic was that students, especially undergraduates, missed in-person collaboration and “co-programming” with their classmates. With this in mind, the new building will offer office-hour spaces for students to meet with their teachers, TAs and peers. There will be in-person co-programming spaces where students can work together to solve problems outside of traditional lecture halls and classrooms. More than half of two floors will be dedicated to these spaces, with a nice connection to the first floor, and an outdoor space for undergraduate and master’s students to collaborate. TA and instructors’ office-hour spaces will also have dedicated co-located spaces on those floors.

How will students benefit from the new facility? And how will it help faculty with their research?

In addition to these collaborative spaces, the 300-plus-seat auditorium will host workshops, hackathons and guest speakers. As enrollments in computer science continue to increase, students will benefit greatly from larger classrooms. The faculty offices will be close to each other, with connected labs and collaborative shared spaces in between to facilitate cross-area collaboration among Ph.D. students and faculty.

The Ginsburg Building will be adjacent to the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience and the Ray Irani Hall for Biological Sciences. How do you expect the proximity of these three facilities to increase connections between computing and medicine, health tech and biology, with a common goal of solving the world’s most pressing health problems?

It will become a hub for new and creative ideas, with patios in between buildings that enable people from different disciplines to come together. At the moment, the only way to really find collaborators is by email. Here, you will have the opportunity to run into people in person — there is no substitute for these kinds of face-to-face encounters if you want to brainstorm or chat. In addition, some of our faculty members who are currently located in multiple buildings across the campus can relocate to this space. I hope this will trigger new collaborations by bringing people together physically (post-pandemic, of course), with easy access to colleagues from different disciplines.

How might researchers working in the Ginsburg, Michelson and Irani buildings expedite the development of, say, a new drug or a treatment?

As an example, a close colleague of mine, Peter Kuhn, a dean’s professor of biological sciences and professor of medicine, biomedical engineering, and aerospace and mechanical engineering, currently works in the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience. We are working on a number of health-related projects, including collecting wearable and sensor data from people with cancer undergoing chemotherapy. In the new building, Peter and his students could quickly come to my lab to experiment with these sensors, and vice versa. We can have more shared meetings, and also do some random brainstorming when we have coffee or lunch on the shared patio.

Also, visitors and funding agencies’ representatives will get a more comprehensive and holistic view of all project participants from various disciplines in one short visit, as they get a full view of various labs and participants in one place. This could garner more support for vital research projects.

What makes USC Viterbi’s Department of Computer Science among the best in the nation?

I believe the future of computer science is all about multidisciplinary collaboration. At USC, we have top schools to collaborate with, right here on campus: Annenberg, Price, Marshall, Keck, Cinema. Computer science research is mature enough that it is no longer just focusing on foundations, but shifting toward applications in other fields. Therefore, access to these top schools next door facilitates access to real-world problems, data and experts.

We also have outstanding programs, including the No. 1 ranked online master’s program in information technology for the ninth consecutive year, and USC Games, offered in collaboration with USC’s School of Cinematics Arts, which was recognized by the Princeton Review as North America’s top game design program for undergraduates.

Connecting with industry is also a key driver. The Computer Science Department Industry Affiliate Program, which was launched in fall 2018, provides engagement opportunities with our exceptionally talented students, world-class faculty and innovative researchers in an array of path-setting disciplines. Current members include Google, Lyft, Facebook and Microsoft.

As chair, what is your vision for the department?

My vision is to bring together the best minds in the world to find innovative solutions to the most complex problems facing society today, and to forge new advances and ideas that will benefit humanity. As we navigate these uncertain times, I truly believe the future of computer science is more vital than ever, with science and technology playing a vital role in combating the pandemic and building a better, more just future for all.

During my tenure, I hope to continue to nurture our incredible talent, attract the brightest faculty and students from diverse backgrounds, and send our graduates into the world with a strong ethical and moral compass.

What is some of the most important research being done by CS professors at USC Viterbi?

Our professors are doing such incredible work in both theory and practice, it is difficult to pick just a few. As a snapshot, our faculty members have been working hard on COVID-19-related research, from spread analysis and risk estimation to misinformation through social media. At the Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society, a partnership with the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, researchers are bringing together AI and social work to find solutions to major societal problems, including homelessness, addiction, climate migration and wildlife poaching. We are also working on important research related to privacy and fairness in machine learning, and developing pioneering socially assistive robotics for children with developmental disabilities.

What are you currently working on?

I am working on some important projects related to health, including developing AI techniques to analyze longitudinal data from wearables to improve the quality of life for people undergoing chemotherapy. I am also working on a pandemic platform that estimates the transmission risk of individuals and locations based on people’s mobility patterns, inferred from real-world location signals provided through a collaboration with Microsoft Research.

What have been some of the biggest wins for the department during your tenure?

Certainly, the unprecedented growth of our student population — we now have 4,500-plus students, and I imagine that will continue to grow. To support this growth, 13 new tenure and tenure-track faculty joined the department since fall 2017, and we created five new staff positions. We also formed four research foci within the department to increase faculty engagements in departmental affairs. The Industry Affiliate Program not only created a new and sustained funding source for the department, but has also opened up a pipeline for top industry players to hire our talented students. Of course, the new building, which will be a new home for our students, faculty and staff, is a big win, and I am very grateful to the Ginsburgs for making this possible.

How do you see computer science and its many offshoots, such as AI and robotics, improving people’s lives?

Computer science tools and mechanisms have become so pervasive in everyday life that you often don’t feel their presence at all. It is already started — smart houses, driverless cars, smart transportation, smart buildings, smart cities and more. I believe all this “ambient technology” could revolutionize how we live and give us more time and energy to focus on solving the big issues of our time.

Also, I believe we will see the full democratization of data. And it’s not just data, but also the computing and analysis that’s now being utilized in what seems like every field, from law to retail to art. Data and computing will no longer just be for the precious few, meaning scientists with advanced degrees, but for every industry and any person.

Some futurists worry about the rise of the robots, with machines supplanting humans in any number of jobs, ranging from driving to reading X-rays to writing stories. Does this represent a threat to society?

Not if we are careful about putting the right policies in place. A good example to imitate, from the chemistry field, is CRISPR, or “genetic scissors,” which won the 2020 Nobel Prize. The technology by itself can potentially change humans’ DNA, which could be abused to modify preborn babies to have specific physical traits, such as eye color, height, etc. But policies are in place to make certain things off-limits. So that does not mean we need to stop innovating. It means we need to innovate with coordination with our colleagues in law, policy, philosophy and other areas.

What role should ethics play in a CS education?

Future software engineers need to learn ethics as part of the curriculum. We already see algorithms that behave unethically with no intention of their human developer. So the very first step is to make our students — the future algorithm designers — aware of the potential unintentional consequences of their work through courses in ethics, and even better, teach them methods and approaches to examine their designs prior to their release to prevent any unethical consequences, if possible.

Black men and women make up only a fraction of CS students. How do you propose to increase their numbers? Why is such diversity important to you?

The challenge is that the pipeline is sparse. For example, I was shocked to learn that last year there were only 13 Black Ph.D. graduates in computer science in all of the United States. So we need to work hard to increase the numbers throughout the pipeline. The department is committed to broadening the participation of African Americans at all levels. Amplified by a recent equity initiative at USC Viterbi, we established the Broadening Participation Committee. Our plan includes increasing awareness of computer science in the Los Angeles Unified School District, increasing the representation of students applying to computer science at USC and striving to retain Black students in computer science. We also want to encourage more African American students to apply for Ph.D. and faculty positions.

It is absolutely critical for people in the field to be representative of our society. In general, having a diversified student population in any field of science and engineering is necessary to ensure all perspectives are covered when designing tools that the entire population will use and be impacted by.