Spring 2011 - The Entrepreneurial Edition

In the Spring 2011 issue:

From the Chair

I am pleased to announce that The University of Texas at Austin Department of Computer Science (UTCS) has embarked on an initiative to bring increased exposure of the entrepreneurial world to our students.

UTCS Entrepreneurship Initiative—passing the baton to the future.Austin, Texas is renowned for its interest in and support of entrepreneurial endeavors, and has become a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity in recent years. This is largely attributable to the prevalent "creative class" in Austin—nurtured by the Austin environment and the influence of talent, ideas and resources flowing from The University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin). In May 2010, Kiplinger's named Austin the top city for business for the next decade. Demographers call Austin a "City of Ideas,"—one of a handful of American regions where a new creative class of entrepreneurs, business leaders, artists and visionaries are reshaping the model for American prosperity.

Since so many entrepreneurial ideas and start-up companies are technology based, it makes good sense for UTCS, a top-ten ranked computer science department, to support and encourage this entrepreneurial ecosystem in Austin. The UTCS entrepreneurial initiative is launching with several initial steps to provide our students the opportunity to experience entrepreneurship first-hand and to learn from successful entrepreneurs by guiding students from a variety of disciplines through the early stages of the startup experience. Students work on a real start-up company, including learning from mentors and speakers, brainstorming ideas, conducting market validation, devising business models, building prototypes, creating branding, and pitching to investors and successful entrepreneurs.

Toward this goal, UTCS is one of the supporters of 3 Day Start-up (3DS), an ongoing student entrepreneurship program that takes place over three days. And in a new initiative inspired by 3DS, UTCS along with the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and the McCombs School of Business will introduce “One Semester Start-up”, a semester-long program of startup acceleration starting fall 2011. The new course will be co-taught by Joshua Baer (Entrepreneur and Director of Capital Factory), Bob Metcalfe (Director of Innovation, Cockrell School of Engineering at UT) and John Butler (Associate Director and Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Finance, Red McCombs School of Business).

UTCS also looks for ways to collaborate with various entrepreneurial-related entities, including UT's ATI and IC2, the Austin Technology Council and the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

If you have ideas for expanding our entrepreneurial reach, please email chair@cs.utexas.edu. I would be happy to hear about ideas that might fit with our entrepreneurial initiatives.

Bruce Porter, UTCS Chair

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Capital Campaign

Check out the live webcams of the Gates Complex/Dell Hall construction!

Make a GiftUTCS is forging a bright digital future for Texas by building a strong interdisciplinary computing facility in the heart of the UT-Austin campus. With generous support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Computer Science Complex will be the first step in the department's plan to transform computing education and research in Texas.

Contact UTCS Chair Bruce Porter for more information.

Research Corner: The IBM Jeopardy! Challenge and Machine Reading

WatsonFour years ago, a team at IBM Research in Hawthorne, New York began developing Watson, a computer that plays the TV game show Jeopardy!. The project ended successfully when Watson beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the top two Jeopardy! champions during games broadcast February 14-16, 2011.

Before building Watson, the IBM team led by Dr. David Ferrucci, had worked for several years on automated question answering (Q/A), competing in the annual Text REtrieval Conference (TREC) Q/A competition run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Given a corpus of millions of natural-language documents (including newspaper and encyclopedia articles), Q/A systems answer specific natural-language questions such as "Where was Barack Obama born?". Unlike a web search engine which just returns a list of relevant documents, a Q/A system must return a single short phrase that answers the question, such as "Honolulu, Hawaii" for the previous example. Q/A systems use a combination of techniques from information retrieval (IR) and natural-language processing (NLP). First, IR methods like those used in web search find short relevant passages in the document corpus that may contain an answer. These short passages are then analyzed more deeply using NLP methods (such as information extraction, syntactic parsing, and semantic analysis) in order to extract hypothesized answer phrases. Finally, potential answers from multiple passages are compared and combined in order to produce a final preferred answer.

In order to demonstrate and extend the capabilities of the Q/A technology they developed, IBM took on the challenge of developing Watson. The final system incorporates a large number of IR and NLP components running in parallel on a cluster computer of 90 Power-750 servers (developed at IBM Austin) with a total of 2,880 cores. These components propose many alternative answers together with supporting evidence. Finally, a machine learning algorithm weighs and combines the evidence for competing hypotheses in order to select a final answer. The answer selector was trained on years of sample Jeopardy! questions, learning to combine diverse forms of evidence to choose correct answers.

UTCS Ph.D. graduate Dr. James Fan was a member of the core Watson development team. After completing his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Professor Bruce Porter in 2006, James joined the IBM team just as it began the development of Watson. In addition, Professors Bruce Porter and Raymond Mooney and Research Scientist Dr. Ken Barker are currently working with the IBM Watson team as part of DARPA's Machine Reading Program (MRP). The goal of MRP is to develop even better Q/A systems that use NLP methods to transform natural language into formal knowledge representations and then use automated reasoning to answer complex questions that require integrating information from multiple documents. Therefore, the goals of MRP go beyond the trivia questions addressed by prior Q/A research.

UTCS held "viewing parties" to watch the Watson Jeopardy! games. The first game was preceded by a video lecture by Dr. Ferrucci describing the Watson system, and followed by an interactive discussion led by Dr. Fan, who returned to UTCS to help celebrate this history-making computing event.

by Professor Ray Mooney, Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Machine Learning Research Group

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Academic Outreach and Initiatives

Explore UTOn March 5th, the university opened its doors to the community for Explore UT. This annual event invites students and families to immerse themselves in the exciting world of UT-Austin, and each department hosts special activities to showcase their field. UTCS hosted professor talks, gave tours of research labs and provided hands-on activities.

For UTCS, a major component of Explore UT is student recruitment into the CS program. For the past three years, the department has invited prospective students to attend Explore CS and Turings Lunch, events geared toward students interested in CS and already admitted to UT. The students attend an information session during the morning, and have lunch with current students and professors. This year, the department hosted 56 students and their families, giving prospective students a taste of the department and a view of life at UTCS.


Friends of Computer Science (FoCS)The Friends of Computer Science (FoCS) program puts partners on the fast track inside the world of UTCS. Our FoCS program has many aspects, including brand building and visibility within the department.

The FoCS website showcases our partners, featuring a prominently displayed profile, a link to a PDF with more detailed information, and an indication of contributions to student support with our new The FoCS member and scholarship donor icon indicates that the FoCS company has also contributed to UTCS student support (scholarship, sponsorship, and/or academic initiatives). icon.

If you wish to join FoCS or contribute to our mission with a scholarship, endowment, or gift, please contact Nancy Hatchett.

For a full list of program features visit http://www.cs.utexas.edu/oea/focs/program_features/.

UTCS welcomes new Friends HomeAway and OnStar!

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Alumni Reconnect: Tarun Nimmagadda and Mickey Ristroph (BS 2009)

Mickey Ristroph and Tarun Nimmagada graduated from UTCS in 2009 and went on to form MutualMobile—a dedicated mobile consulting company.Mickey Ristroph and Tarun Nimmagadda

Tarun and Mickey have been friends since their first meeting freshman year, a few weeks into the Turing Scholar Honors Program at UTCS. After collaborating on several small school projects, their interest in robotics and entrepreneurship brought them together to participate in the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge. The challenge was to build an autonomous car that was capable of following the California state driving laws without a human driver. UTCS formed a small team led by Dr. Peter Stone, which eventually finished among the top 20 in the competition.

The same year, Tarun and Mickey co-founded their first company, AccessAble Systems. AccessAble Systems was born out of a desire to utilize robotic technology to help persons with vision impairments maneuver areas such as university campuses. That year AccessAble Systems won the Dell Social Innovation Competition and the seed money required to propel the company forward.

In July 2008, Tarun and Mickey watched Steve Jobs’ keynote for the iPhone AppStore and were struck by the birth of a new platform. It was a platform with the power of a computer and the sensors similar to robotics (camera, accelerometer, GPS, gyroscope). It presented a flat world where, in two months, a person could become vastly experienced in mobile applications. They dove in head-first with the goal of creating a ramen-profitable company (a self-sustaining company making just enough profit to allow the founders to live on ramen). They released their first app, FingerTangle, enabling people to play Twister on an iPhone with their fingers. They then released a second and equally trivial app, HangTime, which measured how long you can throw your iPhone in the air. HangTime was later named the Dumbest App of the Year by PC World, an ironic honor. Luckily, the apps got more practical over time. CardCaller, the third development, now accounts for over 1.5 million minutes a month of international calls.

In 2009, Tarun and Mickey joined forces with another college friend, John Arrow, to start Mutual Mobile. Mutual Mobile is a dedicated mobile consulting company that seeks to unite the best minds in mobile and to help other companies create their own mobile solutions. As it became clear that Mutual Mobile was the leading service provider in a young but rapidly growing market, Mutual Mobile grew at a meteoric rate. Today, Mutual Mobile helps create mobile solutions for leading companies like Google, Cisco and Audi. The team of mobility experts has grown to over 130 employees in just two years without raising any capital. Mutual Mobile just announced the availability of LaunchPad, an enterprise distribution and testing platform that helps companies streamline the process of creating and distributing apps for their own employees. Recently, Mutual Mobile was named the Best Mobile Marketing Agency by the Austin AdFed.

Tarun and Mickey still live in Austin, Texas as roommates. Their living room is decorated with a single ramen package and is absent furniture to serve as an iconic everyday reminder of their goals and values.

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UTCS Events

UTCS Event Showcase: OnStar Student Developer Challenge

OnStar, a new member of the Friends of Computer Science program, hosted The 2011 OnStar Student Developer Challenge—exemplifying the synergy of commercial and academic innovation.

OnStar invited UTCS students to participate in the Challenge, which tasked students to develop a voice-recognition application that keeps drivers safely connected to infotainment and gives real-time vehicle diagnostics and route adjustments based on traffic flow.

Six semi-finalists nationwide will win an all-expenses paid VIP trip to O'Reilly's Where 2.0 Conference in San Jose, California to present their applications to a prestigious panel of judges. The Challenge's top winner will receive a Grand Prize Developer Dream Package (valued at $10,000) including an iPad, MacBook Pro and more.

OnStar’s technology provides hands-free dialing, turn-by-turn navigation (including evacuation routes during a crisis), emergency services, stolen vehicle assistance, remote door unlock, and 24-hour access to trained advisors. It has been standard in GM vehicles since 2007 and is now open to all vehicles.

Upcoming Events:

Recent Major Department Events:

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Faculty News

Faculty at UTCS are at the forefront of the digital revolution. Recently, they have been awarded four ACM Fellows, three IEEE Fellows, a Vice Chair position on the President's Council... Read more

We invite you to view our faculty awards, honors and books:

For more information about our faculty, please see the research page of the UTCS website.

Staff News

Awards and Honors

Chad Barnes, UTCS Senior Procurement Officer, is a 2011 recipient of the university's Outstanding Staff Award. Chad is one of just 30 UT staff to be given the award this year and will be recognized at The President's Staff Awards Reception on May 13, 2011.

The University of Texas at Austin Outstanding Staff Award honors and recognizes the invaluable contributions of eligible non-teaching employees whose outstanding dedication, competence, conscientious performance, excellent customer service, or ingenuity has had a significant impact on the university.

Chad also won the 2010 UTCS Staff Excellence Award and 2011 College of Natural Sciences Staff Excellence Award. Congratulations, Chad!

Congratulations also go out to Lewis Fishgold, Teaching Assistant for CS 391L, who won the 2010 UTCS Teaching Assistant Excellence Award.

UTCS welcomes new employees

We also congratulate Tiffany Grady on her new role as Assistant Director of Academics...

and says farewell to

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Major Events and Deadlines

Every Wednesday: Faculty Forum Lunch, 12-1 & Grad Tea Time every afternoon (through May 5th)

* = Invitation only

Press Desk

For more UTCS news, please visit our press desk:

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