We've been steadily tracking developments at Cornell-Technion's new technology campus in New York City. Not just because of the expected NYC-Silicon Valley rivalries or news that Google was donating some of its NYC office space to give the campus a temporary home. Or even the remarkable talent from the tech world the project's attracting, including ex-Twitter CEO Greg Pass, whom we interviewed last month. It's because we know from the history of places like the MIT Media Lab or the clustering of industry titans near Stanford that the technologies and tech companies of the future are profoundly shaped by bleeding-edge research at universities. This is especially true if these institutions can create the right kinds of lateral structures to attract talent and to nurture and implement big ideas. It's a bit like building technology protocols themselves: you want the right blend of organization and freedom, the practical and the ideal.
As it happens, computer scientist Deborah Estrin, announced last week as CornellNYC's first academic hire, already knows quite a bit about all of these problems. Her pathbreaking career has taken a series of twists and turns, but it keeps returning to building systems that work — and helping those that don't work, work better.
In this year alone, Dr. Estrin has been named one of CNN's "10 most powerful women in tech" and Wired UK's "Smart List" of 50 people who will change the world. "We are looking for faculty members who have made an impact in the academic, commercial and societal realms, and she's a superstar in all three," said tech campus dean Dan Huttenlocher. "That's one big reason we were able to move so quickly in bringing her on board."
"I had been tracking what was happening with the New York tech campus, particularly after I heard that Stanford was putting something together," Dr. Estrin says. "It was just such an intriguing concept. Then after Cornell and The Technion won the bid, I was approached about a month and a half later. When you consider the uniqueness of what Cornell NYCTech campus will be, and how aligned it is with how I like to work, embedding technological innovation within social research, it just seemed so fitting."
From TCP/IP to mobile sensors, Estrin keeps making systems work better
When Dr. Estrin was still in her twenties, she served with a small group of other researchers (including now-legends like Vint Cerf) on the Internet Advisory Board, helping develop and standardize the fundamental routing, network, and security protocols of the internet. She became chair of the IAB's Autonomous Networks Research Group, where she was already working on developing protocols for enormous, heterogeneous networks of a huge range of objects, not just computers. This helped lay the foundation for both IPv6 and what we now call "the internet of things."
Estrin is also an institution builder, both as founding director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at UCLA, and co-founder of Open mHealth, a nonprofit charged with developing open architectures and software for new mobile health initiatives. This is the work for which Estrin's now best-known: building applications to leverage massively-deployed sensors on networked mobile devices, and using them to help the people carrying them around the world.
"This led to us using images from public webcams to study seasonal shifts in response to climate change"
"We were doing environmental monitoring using a range of different physical and chemical sensors," she says. "Working with ecologists, we discovered that the contact sensors were getting fouled up by the dirt. I had been doing work related to computer vision." Estrin and her team realized that they could actually see global warming at work. "This led to us using images from public webcams to study seasonal shifts in response to climate change. So we wrote software to scrape the images and track when plants' greening was starting."
"When you engage with real use, you get places you wouldn't get abstractly"
For Estrin, this kind of solution and its genesis shows the value of collaborations between technologists and non-technological specialists, theoreticians and practitioners. "You get a co-innovation that you wouldn't have gotten before. Instead of building a solution to a static, fixed problem, the tools you build and places you discover are more surprising. And when you engage with real use, you get places you wouldn't get abstractly," she adds.
"When I started working on mobile health, we asked, 'what markers will tell us how people are doing every day? There are lots of things you could do," says Estrin. "One question many clinicians ask their patients is, 'what time do you leave the house in the morning?' It's problematic because it's a subjective question, and you're hoping your patients remember accurately. But for people with symptoms like chronic pain, depression, or irritable bowel syndrome, it's an extremely useful metric. And it's one we can get very accurately from that person's mobile phone — even a very basic phone — and one that the person themselves can use to monitor their own health."
All of this makes Estrin a clear fit for CornellNYC Tech's multidisciplinary hubs, particularly "healthier life" and "built environment." The opportunities her work has created for engineers and computer scientists to trade ideas with biologists, designers, social scientists, and other professionals are built in to the campus's structure.
"If somebody can't build a business model around what you do, it won't happen"
Still, she's also attracted to the explicitly entrepreneurial side of the school. "In the end, to be fair, if somebody can't build a business model around what you do, it won't happen," Estrin says. We need people "using common rich infrastructure to reduce costs, whether it's in the context of health care or in the context of the internet, where I grew up."
Here, too, it seems like Dr. Estrin is still looking for ways heterogeneous networks — whether of people, things, academic disciplines, or values — can identify and talk to each other, making the wide distances and differences between them seem smaller.