CMU Pittsburgh campus

New York Times: Pittsburgh Gets a Tech Makeover

In New York Times, July 22, 2017
By Steven Kurutz 

PITTSBURGH — In 2015, Monocle magazine, a favorite read of the global hipsterati, published an enthusiastic report on Lawrenceville, the former blue-collar neighborhood here filled with cafes, hyped restaurants and brick rowhouses being renovated by flippers.

Last year, in a much-publicized development, Uber began testing self-driving cars on the streets, putting this city at the forefront of the autonomous-vehicle revolution.

Also last year, in a less publicized development, Jean Yang, 30, returned to this city after more than a decade of living in Boston, finding a Pittsburgh she hardly recognized from her 1990s childhood.

And four months ago, Caesar Wirth, a 28-year-old software engineer, moved from Tokyo to work for a local tech start-up, Duolingo.

These seemingly unrelated events have one thing in common: Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science.


Much has been made of the “food boom” in Pittsburgh, and the city has long had a thriving arts scene. But perhaps the secret, underlying driver for both the economy and the cool factor — the reason Pittsburgh now gets mentioned alongside Brooklyn and Portland, Ore., as an urban hot spot for millennials — isn’t chefs or artists but geeks.

In a 2014 article in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mayor Bill Peduto compared Carnegie Mellon, along with the University of Pittsburgh, to the iron ore factories that made this city an industrial power in the 19th century. The schools are the local resource “churning out that talent” from which the city is fueled.

Because of the top students and research professors at Carnegie Mellon, tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Uber have opened offices here.

The big tech firms, along with their highly skilled, highly paid workers, have made Pittsburgh younger and more international and helped to transform once-derelict neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and East Liberty.

Indeed, East Liberty has become something of a tech hub, said Luis von Ahn, the co-founder and chief executive of Duolingo, a language-learning platform company with its headquarters in that neighborhood. Google Pittsburgh, with its more than 500 employees, also has part of its offices in East Liberty, as does AlphaLab, a start-up accelerator.

Within easy walking distance from them is the Ace, a branch of the hip hotel chain that opened in 2015 in a former Y.M.C.A. building. The hotel’s in-house Whitfield restaurant and lobby bar have become hangouts for local techies and out-of-towners alike.

With so many of his 90 employees residing in Walnut on Highland, one of the newer housing and retail complexes in East Liberty, Mr. von Ahn joked, “We call them the Duolingo dorms.”

Mr. von Ahn, 38, is a superstar in the tech world. He has sold two companies to Google, received a MacArthur grant and helped develop the type-the-squiggly-word thing we use online to prove we’re not bots (it’s called reCaptcha). He earned a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon in 2005 and could have made a beeline for New York, Boston or Silicon Valley, but he decided to stay.

“I loved C.M.U., and that’s the main reason why I stayed,” said Mr. von Ahn, who, in addition to his role at Duolingo, is a consulting professor in the School of Computer Science.

There were also business advantages to remaining: Duolingo is close to the engineering talent (“C.M.U. is pumping out some of the best, at a rate of about 500 a year,” Mr. von Ahn said), and for millennial job-seekers, Pittsburgh’s quality-of-life-metric is looking better these days than ever-costlier, ever-more-crowded New York or San Francisco.

For Mr. Wirth, the software engineer who started at Duolingo in February, Silicon Valley is a fun place to visit, but living and working in the Bay Area would be a grind.

“I was just there last week for a conference,” Mr. Wirth said. “I was talking to someone who told me, ‘My commute is two hours on the bus.’ I just can’t do that.”

Kamal Nigam, a Carnegie Mellon graduate who is the head of Google Pittsburgh, said that a decade ago, workers hired by the company had family or personal connections to the city. That is no longer the case. “We’re getting people who are moving to Pittsburgh for the very first time, from all over the country and the world,” Mr. Nigam said.

He added, “With the growing number of start-ups and the big companies in the area, people realize they can have not just one job at a good tech company, but a tech career here.”


For many years, Pittsburgh was a place 20-somethings fled or avoided. In the 1990s, Allegheny County, which includes the city, was the second-oldest large county in the United States, behind only a geriatric zone in Florida. It was a notoriously difficult place to be young and single, and an earlier generation of computer science students put in their four years at Carnegie Mellon, grabbed their diplomas and left.

This is the sleepy city Jean Yang knew while growing up near the campus, where her father was a research scientist in the School of Computer Science. “I didn’t realize no one wanted to stay in Pittsburgh,” Ms. Yang said. “I was just leaving because I thought everyone wants to leave where they grew up. I really didn’t think I’d come back as an adult.”

But Ms. Yang’s field of research is in computer programming languages, and, as she put it, “C.M.U. is the best place for the kind of work I want to do.” When she was offered an assistant professor position in the School of Computer Science and discovered a changed Pittsburgh on her visits back, Ms. Yang accepted the job and returned last August.

“There’s definitely an excitement about being here,” she said. “I go out to eat and drink in East Liberty. Lawrenceville I go to a lot. Everywhere I go didn’t exist when I was growing up.”


While young, cool Pittsburgh may be a recent development, the research at Carnegie Mellon in the field of artificial intelligence has a long history. The university was the first in the world to establish a machine-learning department, and its Robotics Institute, a division of the School of Computer Science, tested an autonomous vehicle, the Terregator, back in 1984.

It’s no surprise that Uber came to Pittsburgh to research self-driving cars (and poached 40 Robotics Institute employees). Or that Amazon recently joined them here, opening an office whose engineer-heavy work force will focus on perfecting Alexa, the company’s intelligent personal assistant that aims to turn us all into the Joaquin Phoenix character from “Her.”

Put simply, where the tech world is going — self-driving cars; personal A.I. concierges; robot workers — is where Carnegie Mellon’s faculty and students have been for decades.

In some ways, the School of Computer Science feels like any college campus environment, with its hodgepodge of new and classical architecture and hushed study zones. But there is also a “Roboceptionist” named Tank LeFleur and eager grad students in a basement lab testing drones and all manner of research projects going on that might change the world in 10 years, or just delight someone’s colleagues.

“It’s like being in Hogwarts,” said Andrew W. Moore, the dean of the School of Computer Science. “It’s really cool and exciting to have these glimpses of the future, and to see all these people running around and having these crazy ideas.”

Mr. Moore was the founding director of Google’s Pittsburgh office before returning three years ago to the college, where he was previously a professor of computer science and robotics. A gifted explainer of technology for the layperson (such as the time he broke down A.I. for Charlie Rose), Mr. Moore opened a laptop on a conference table in his office to show a recent breakthrough — a two-minute video of people dancing to “Uptown Funk,” with multicolored skeletons superimposed to show how a computer was tracking and analyzing their body and hand movements of all the dancers simultaneously.

The video is part of a project that Yaser Sheikh, an assistant research professor, is working on to capture and analyze through a camera and computer software the limb movements and hand gestures of every person in a crowd, Mr. Moore said.

“I get to see these cool things all the time and I’m just stopping to say, ‘Well, what does this even mean for the world?’” he said. “You start thinking, ‘Someone can use this in dance class.’ Then you think: ‘Wait. Can we use this to judge gymnastics competitions?’ Then you say, ‘Wait, couldn’t we use this in securing Penn Station in New York?’”


Frequently, campus research projects spill into the larger city, like when a professor develops a start-up company (the school encourages entrepreneurship), or the local government allows Pittsburgh to be used as a lab (a number of traffic lights in East Liberty are controlled by a Carnegie Mellon professor and his colleagues, who have developed smart signal technology).

Lee Gutkind, an author who published a 2006 book about the Robotics Institute, “Almost Human: Making Robots Think,” has seen self-driving cars go from clunky circuit boards on wheels to cruising the streets of his hometown. “It’s a terrific thing to have in Pittsburgh,” Mr. Gutkind said. “It’s uplifting to see.”

Speaking of Red Whittaker, the professor who led Carnegie Mellon in winning the $2 million Darpa Urban Challenge self-driving car competition in 2007, Mr. Gutkind said, “Red was into self-driving vehicles before anyone,” using Carnegie Mellon’s resources and reaching out to local investors for money and technical support.

A legend in the robotics field, Professor Whittaker turns out also to be a gentrification pioneer: He was instrumental in locating the school’s National Robotics Engineering Center in an abandoned foundry in Lawrenceville, in 1996.

“Lawrenceville was in the lost and found, it was really rough,” he said, adding that the introduction of a state-of-the-art research facility and its educated work force was, among other developments in the area, a “catalyst and galvanizing influence” for the neighborhood.

“The real estate and the culture of the neighborhood was a very big thing for robotics,” he said. “And robotics was a very big thing for the neighborhood.”

Which means even a Monocle reporter being dispatched to check out the Espresso a Mano cafe with its rotating exhibitions by local artists can be traced back to the geeks, in a six-degrees-of-Carnegie-Mellon sort of way.

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