In this monthly interview series, we turn the spotlight on members of the academic community – and the important research they do — as thought partners, collaborators, and independent contributors.
For September, we are spotlighting Murali Annavaram, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Southern California (USC) and Director of the USC ECE-ISE - Meta Platforms, Inc. Center for Research and Education in AI and Learning (REAL@USC-Meta Center). After a year at Meta as a visiting researcher, Murali brought his learnings back to USC, where he founded the REAL@USC-Meta Center, funded by Meta.
“We’re proud and excited about the collaboration established with Professor Murali Annavaram and his brilliant team through the REAL@USC-Meta Center,” says Ludovic Hauduc, Meta VP of Engineering within AI Infra. “We’re looking forward to furthering this engagement, and through it, to align USC’s unique areas of research in AI with Meta’s experience combining technology and ideas to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
In this Q&A, Murali shares how his collaboration with Meta inspired a vision for a new educational center and how researchers across industry and academia can drive incredible impact together.
Q: How did your collaboration with Meta start?
Murali Annavaram: I’ve always been interested in systems architecture and the idea of building computer systems as efficiently as possible — especially when it comes to energy-efficient hardware. Meta has planetary-scale computer systems that solve and face some of the most fascinating challenges in the world. In 2020, I spent the year as a visiting researcher at Meta, where I had the opportunity to study these systems and think of ways to improve the efficiency of these planetary scale computers. I had the opportunity to work on real hardware and collaborate on improving the efficiency of large-scale AI systems, which is a very fulfilling aspect of my year spent at Meta. After my experience at Meta, I wanted to build on this foundation of knowledge to accomplish even more, by bringing it back to USC with me.
Q: What inspired you to create the REAL@USC-Meta Center?
MA: Many existing centers are research-oriented: They focus primarily on research problems and think of ways to solve those problems. I want to create something different. Our goal for the center is to model how academics can work with industry in the future by focusing on education and engaging students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to participate. Industry has been generous in funding my research throughout my career, and I want to pay it forward with the next generation.
Additionally, as AI and machine learning play increasingly important roles in our lives, it’s critical to further AI research and address challenges in making AI more energy-efficient and sustainable. In response, the overarching focus for the center will be advancing foundations for cooperative algorithmic optimization, hardware innovations for AI, and AI education accessibility.
Q: What are the pillars of the REAL@USC-Meta Center?
MA: The center has four pillars of support. The first is research, which focuses on the problems that matter most to groups at USC and Meta and gives students the opportunity to interact with researchers. The second pillar is education. Education is expensive — especially graduate school — so the center awards fellowships to diverse groups of students to earn their master’s degrees at USC. Meta and USC make contributions to fund the fellowships and focus on students who wouldn’t be able to afford higher education on their own.
The third pillar is curriculum enhancements, where the goal is to have academics and industry researchers in AI and machine learning follow parallel workstreams. Finally, the fourth pillar is outreach for undergraduates and graduate students. We work with K-12 STEM students, introducing the concepts of machine learning early on in the hopes of creating future opportunities for them.
Q: What are you looking forward to next for the REAL@USC-Meta Center?
AM: The center hosted our first in-person meeting in Los Angeles this spring, and nearly 100 people attended, including Meta representatives and USC Viterbi students and faculty. Education requires hands-on tools, so I’m excited for more in-person conferences and events in the future where we can showcase and share our progress.
Most important, the unofficial motto of the center is “Why be ordinary when you can be extraordinary?” I’m looking forward to all the extraordinary work to come.
To learn more about Murali’s work at the REAL@USC-Meta Center, visit the center’s website or this USC blog.