TITLE: Taking Computer Science Off the Beaten Track AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 26, 2011 9:02 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I love this idea: a workshop at POPL 2012, the premier programming languages research conference, called Off the Beaten Track. Here is the gist.
Programming language researchers have the principles, tools, algorithms and abstractions to solve all kinds of problems, in all areas of computer science. However, identifying and evaluating new problems, particularly those that lie outside the typical core PL problems we all know and love, can be a significant challenge. Hence, the goal of this workshop is to identify and discuss problems that do not often show up in our top conferences, but where programming language researchers can make a substantial impact. The hope is that by holding such a forum and associating it directly with a top conference like POPL, we can slowly start to increase the diversity of problems that are studied by PL researchers and that by doing so we will increase the impact that our community has on the world.
I remember when I first started running across papers written by physicists on networks in social science and open-source software. Why were physicists writing these papers? They are out of their league. In fact, though they were something else: curious, and equipped with good tools for studying the problems. Good for them -- and good fro the rest of us. too, as they contributed to our understanding of how the world works. Computer science has even better tools and methods for studying all manners of problems and systems, especially the more dynamic systems. Our ability to reify the language of any domain and then write programs to implement the semantics of the domain is one step up from the models that most mathematicians and physicists bring to the table. Sometimes we forget the power we have in language. As Tim Ottinger tweeted today, "I think people have lost the idea that OO builds the language you implement in, as well as the product." We forget to use our own ability to create and use language even in an approach built on the premise! And of course we can go farther when we build architectures and virtual machines for domain-specific languages, rather than living inside a relatively restrictive model like Java. The organizers of Off the Beaten Track remind us to think about the wealth of "principles, tools, algorithms, and abstractions" we possess and can bring to bear on problems far beyond the narrow technical area of programming languages research, from the natural sciences to art and music, from economics and the law to linguistics and education. They even acknowledge that we don't always appreciate the diversity in our own research field and so encourage submissions on "unusual compilers" and "underrepresented programming languages". The last sentence in the passage above expresses an important ultimate goal: to increase the impact the programming languages community has on the world. I heartily support this goal and suggest that it is an important one not only for programming languages researchers. It is essential that many more of us in computer science look off the beaten track for ways to apply what we have learned to problems far beyond our own borders. If we start focusing on problems that matter to other people, problems that matter, we might just solve them. My favorite line in the Off the Beaten Track home page is the last item in its bullet list of potential topic areas: Surprise us.. Indeed. Surprise us. -----