TITLE: SIGCSE Day 3 -- CS Past, Present, and Future AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 11, 2008 4:44 PM DESC: ----- BODY:

[A transcript of the SIGCSE 2008 conference: Table of Contents] Of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, two lie within computing: computers (#8) and the Internet (#13). Those are broad categories defined around general-purpose tools that have affected the lives of almost every person and the practice of almost every job. In 2004, human beings harvested 10 quintillion grains of rice. In 2004, humans beings fabricated 10 quintillion transistors. 10 quintillion is a big number: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000. Ed Lazowska Ed Lazowska of the University of Washington opened his Saturday luncheon talk at SIGCSE with these facts, as a way to illustrate the broad effect that our discipline has had on the world and the magnitude of the discipline today. He followed by putting the computational power available today into historical context. The amount of computational power that was available in the mainstream in the 1950s is roughly equivalent to an electronic greeting card today. Jump forward to the Apollo mission to the moon, and that computation power is now available in a Furby. Lazowska didn't give sources for these claims or data to substantiate them, but sound reasonable to me within an order of magnitude. The title of Lazowska's talk was "Computer Science: Past, Present, and Future", and it was intended to send conference attendees home energized about our discipline. He energized folks with cool facts about computer science's growth and effect. Then he looked to the future, at some of the challenges and some of the steps being taken to address them. One of the active steps being taken within computing is the Computing Community Consortium a joint venture of the National Science Foundation and the Computing Research Association, whose mission is to "supports the computing research community in creating compelling research visions and the mechanisms to realize these visions". According to Lazowska, the CCC hopes to inspire "audacious and inspiring research" while at the same time articulating visions of the discipline to the rest of the world. Lazowska is one of the leaders of the group. The group's twin goals are both worth the attention of our discipline's biggest thinkers. As I listened to Lazowska describe the CCC's initiatives, I was reminded of our discipline's revolutionary effect on other disciplines and industries. Lazowska reported that two or two and a half of the 20th century's greatest engineering results were computing, but take a look at the rest of the list. Over the last half century, computers and the Internet have played an increasingly important role in many of these greatest achievements, from embedded computers in automobiles, airplanes, and spacecraft to the software that has opened new horizons in radio and television, telephones, health technologies, and most of the top 20. Now take a look at the Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century, which Lazowska pointed us to. Many of these challenges depend crucially upon our discipline. Here are seven:

But imagine doing any of the other seven without involving computing in an intimate way! I've written a few times about how science has come to be a computational endeavor. Lazowska gave an example that I reported from as part of the next generation of science: databases. A database makes it possible to answer questions that you think of next year, not just the ones you thought of five years ago, when you wrote your proposal to NSF and when you later defined the format of your flat text file. He illustrated his idea with examples of projects at the Ocean Observatories Initiative, and the Quality of Life Technology Center. He also mentioned the idea of prosthetics as the "future of interfaces", which is a natural research and entrepreneurial opportunity for CS students. You may recall having read about this entrepreneurial connection in this blog way back! For his part, Lazowska suggested advancing personalized learning as an area in which computing could have an immeasurable effect. Adaptive one-on-one tutoring is something that could reach an enormous unserved population and help develop the human capital that could revolutionize the world. This is actually the area into which I was evolving back when I was doing AI research, intelligent tutoring systems. I remain immensely interested in the area and what it could mean for the world. Many folks are uncomfortable with the idea of "computers teaching our children", but I think it's simply a part of the evolution of communication that computer science embodies. The book is a means of educating, communicating, and sharing information, but it is a one-track medium. The computer is a multiple-track medium, a way to deliver interactive and dynamic content to a wide audience. A "dynabook"... I wonder if anyone has been promoting this idea for say, oh, thirty years? Fear of computers playing a human-like role in human interaction is nothing new. It reminds me of another story Lazowska told, from Time Magazine's article on the computer as the 1982 Machine of the Year. The article mentions CADUCEUS, one of the medical expert systems that was at the forefront of AI's focus on intelligent systems in the '70s and '80s. Here's the best passage:
... while it is possible that a family doctor would recognize 4,000 different symptoms, CADUCEUS is more likely to see patterns in what patients report and can then suggest a diagnosis. The process may sound dehumanized, but in one hospital where the computer specializes in peptic ulcers, a survey of patients showed that they found the machine "more friendly, polite, relaxing and comprehensible" than the average physician.
There are days when I am certain that we can create an adaptive tutoring system that is more relaxing and comprehensible than I am as a teacher, and probably friendlier and politer to boot. Lazowska closed with an exhortation that computer scientists adopt the stance of the myth buster in trying to educate the general population, whether myths about programming (e.g., "Programming is a solitary activity"), employment ("Computing jobs will all go overseas."), or intrinsic joy ("There are no challenges left.") He certainly gave his audience plenty of raw material for busting one of the myths about the discipline not being interesting: "Computer science lacks opportunities to change the world." Not only do we change the world directly in the form of things like the Internet; these days, when almost anyone changes the world, they do so by using computing! Lazowska's talk was perhaps too long, trying to pack more information into an hour than we could comfortably digest. But it was a good way to close out SIGCSE, given that one of its explicit themes seemed to engaging the world and that the buzz everywhere I went at the conference was about how we need to reach out more and communicate more effectively. -----