Computer Science Outside The Box

November 12th, 2008 by Ed Lazowska Post a comment »

One of the great things about computing research is that, despite our incredible track record of game-changing advances, we’re always looking for ways to make the field even more vibrant.  In this vein, on Monday I attended “Computer Science Outside The Box,” a workshop of 44 leaders from academia and industry (mostly department heads) convened by NSF CISE, CCC, and CRA.

The workshop vastly exceeded my expectations – 8 hours of brainstorming about strategies and best practices, in four areas:

·     “Go Outside Your Box” – what strategies can we adopt to increase collaboration across subfields and with other fields?

·     “The World Needs Us” – how to contribute to the solution of societal “Grand Challenge” problems while simultaneously driving computing research forward.

·     “Breaking the Cycle” – can we change the reward structure to decrease incrementalism, encouraging long-range thinking?

·     “Serving the Community” – how can we further increase the culture of service to the research community and to the nation?

I’m sure others will blog on various aspects, and teams have formed to write up specific strategies and best practices.  But here are a few things that really struck me:

Computer science:  the ever-expanding sphere

A model of how our field evolves can help us make smart decisions.  Think of computer science as an ever-expanding sphere (this analogy is due to Alfred Spector; all graphics are due to Peter Lee).  We transform other fields and we change the world.  We do this not just through the application of computation, but through the introduction of computational thinking.  When we transform these fields, we make new discoveries about our own field that enlarge our “bag of tricks” – our ability to transform other fields.  So we constantly reinvent ourselves by reinventing others.

We’ve transformed circuit design, publishing, photography, communication, mechanical CAD, certain fields of science, …  We’re in the process of transforming biology, transportation, …  And we’re always transforming ourselves.  Computer science truly is an endless frontier.

What this means is that even when working inside the sphere, we’ve got to be looking outward.  And at the edges of the sphere, we’ve got to be embracing others, because that’s how we reinvent ourselves.

Computer science lives in Pasteur’s Quadrant

The vast majority of work in our field is motivated both by concerns of use and by a desire to evolve principles of enduring value.  If anything, we may be too much in Pasteur’s Quadrant – we may place too little value on research without obvious utility, and we may be too reluctant to reject as “not computer science” work that’s focused on applications where it may not be obvious that our own field will be advanced.  (Jim Gray had the stature and courage to pioneer our move into data-intensive eScience – today, the transformations this has stimulated “within the sphere” are obvious.)

Lots of the action is at the interfaces

This is true fractally – it’s true of the interfaces between computer science and other fields (the edges of the sphere), and it’s true of the interfaces between subfields of computer science.

We’ve got to produce students who are comfortable at these interfaces.  It’s increasingly difficult.  Stuart Russell observed that “Bohr drives Pasteur” – we need strength at the core, and the core is ever-expanding.  At the same time, students need to be able to make connections.  I’m concerned we’re making the wrong tradeoffs these days.  Students enter graduate school with records that look like promotion cases a decade ago!  We decrease course requirements to get students engaged in our own research as quickly as possible.  Our colloquia are half-empty because everyone’s too busy beavering away to attend.  These factors decrease breadth and agility within the sphere.  We don’t require minors, which would expose students to other fields – this decreases the ability to work at the edge of the sphere.  As a field, we should tackle these issues head-on.

Visions, incremental progress, and random walks

A research project needs to be hard enough to be interesting, and easy enough to be doable.   There needs to be a vision – a sense of where you and your colleagues are headed over a five-year or ten-year period.  And it needs to be tackled in what Alfred Spector calls “factorizable pieces.”

If there’s a vision, then a “factorizable piece” may appear incremental, but it’s headed somewhere important.  Without a vision, it’s part of a random walk.  It’s important to differentiate these!  A goal of the CCC “visioning workshop” process is to articulate some of these visions for our field.

Bob Sproull pointed us to a wonderful paper by Ivan Sutherland on the conduct of research – “Technology and Courage.”  Read it!

Onward

I’m sure others will blog on various aspects of the workshop.  Look in the mirror – is there a field you’d rather be part of?

Ed Lazowska

  • Chitoor V. Srinivasan

    The outline is too broad and lacks specific insights into the various topics cited. Topics are significant, but lacks pointers on how to proceed. Looks like another one of those conferences with high objectives but little direction.

    Srinivasan

  • http://www.si.umich.edu/pollackm Martha Pollack

    Srinivasan, Stay tuned. In fact there were a lot of very specific ideas generated about how to proceed and address these problems. Meeting participants volunteered to write a set of “pretty good practice” documents that synthesize these ideas and make them available to the community. These practice documents will be forthcoming. Many of issues that we were grappling with at this meeting require significant culture change, and the only way to achieve that is to take many small steps in the right direction–and the practice documents identify what such steps can include.