Faculty Spotlight: Assistant Professor Chinmay Kulkarni

September 7, 2016

Meet Chinmay Kulkarni, who joined the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) faculty last year. Kulkarni shares his background, research motivation and what students can expect from his classes.

What was your background before joining the HCII?

I am primarily interested in building technology that uses the networked properties of online communities to improve how people live and learn. I have a Ph.D. from Stanford University. I first became interested in leveraging technology to help people learn when my advisor needed a TA for a large online class. When you start looking at a problem deeply, you see all kinds of problems that are not trivially fixable, but are hugely important. These become opportunities for research. That's where my interest in peer research and doing research at a large scale started. It's been about three years now, and I have found it surprisingly fun and fulfilling. You spent a lot of time in front of a computer instead of talking to students face-to-face. But the best part is that after you have spent that time, students you have never met before tell you how useful your software is for them. Being able to affect students who would otherwise not be able to learn is extremely fulfilling.

What is the motivation behind your research?

My motivation serves as both a carrot and a stick. The appealing or exciting part of my research is that for maybe the first time, we can create very new opportunities to help people learn in ways they have never had access to before. I hear from students who may be using the system in a small village in Egypt where they only have Internet for a few hours a day. That keeps me very passionate about the opportunities my work offers.

The stick, so to say, is that we can see that many places in the world are going to have a shortage in the number of people who have high levels of skill. While I think we have started to figure out how to teach people at primary school level at a global sense. But we haven’t figured out how to give people higher skills. My fear is that we will have a shortage of people who are highly trained and there will be a surplus of unskilled workers who may find themselves replaced by automated technology. That is my motivation to find ways to provide the right learning to the unskilled worker to enable him or her to become the highly skilled worker.

Then there is another part of my research that really isn't about skills; it's about a way of thinking. By connecting together groups of people from different parts of the world, we are forming global communities of interest. There is evidence that as these people speak to each other dogmatic views lessen, which is crucially important in an increasingly divided world.

What makes you most excited about your work at CMU?

Carnegie Mellon has such a strong and focused HCI research culture. Having colleagues like the faculty here, you can just get ideas by the dozen, sometimes just by engaging in hallway conversations with them. 

I am also very excited about my role as an advisor for graduate students. I was lucky to have amazing advisors during my time at Stanford, and I am excited to take on that role for my Ph.D. students now.

What can students expect from working with you as faculty?

I am really convinced that students can help each other a lot more than we give them credit for. My research is based in large part on student review and discussion. So I think my students can probably expect to help their classmates a lot more. We can collect more data from students and use that to help them learn better as well.

I have taught at small scale, but also taught these really large classes, so something that I hope students will see is that I am a little more aware of difference among students and less likely to think of a typical student. Once you teach thousands of really diverse students, you begin to appreciate the variety of skills and knowledge each student has. I hope my students will see more awareness in me of the different skills they are able to bring to the table.

How do you enjoy Pittsburgh?

It's actually really surprising because I didn't expect to like it; it gets so cold here. I found it to be a very interesting city. I'm really surprised by how open people are here to having social innovations. Coming from Silicon Valley, there is almost the idea that once we build technology, we will magically make things better. Pittsburgh has a better approach in that, yes, technology can make improve lives, but we also have to design it around society. For example, the number of community initiatives that you see in Pittsburgh is awesome. There is a program that is engineered to help people who are looking for work and are unemployed for 90 or more days. Pittsburgh seems to understand that for technology to help, it has to be applied with meaning.

How do you describe the value of human-computer interaction?

I see human-computer interaction and its role as a way to help people relate to computation in a meaningful way. Helping people do what they want to do or helping communities do what they want to do in a better way. My particular version of HCI is very focused on creating new opportunities for learning, but that is just one way to use HCI. Other faculty use it to create new work or help people invent better. HCI allows us to help people and communities related to technology in ways that are more productive and in some ways, more beneficial to our society.

Outside of the university, what do you enjoy in your free time?

I really enjoy things like social dance and am trying to find new groups to join in Pittsburgh. I also bought an apartment here and enjoy working on that space.