Game-Changing Advances from Computing Research — Followup

November 30th, 2008 by Ed Lazowska Post a comment »

In a November 4 post, we asked your help in identifying game-changing advances from computing research conducted in the past 20 years.  We primed the pump with four examples:

  • The Internet and the World Wide Web as we know them today
  • Search technology – Where once we filed, today we search
  • Cluster computing
  • The transformation of science via computation

In this post, we summarize just a sample of your additions (we have grabbed text from your posted comments, without a lot of editing, so this will be loose – “it’s the thoughts that count”) and invite your further comments – cleaning up these additions, or providing others.  Please let us hear from you!

Secure communication – the foundation of e-commerce

All of e-commerce relies on the results of computing research:  the Internet, the World Wide Web, cluster computing, parallel relational database systems, cryptography and algorithms for secure credit card transactions.  Here, we focus on the latter.  Without secure communication – for example, the ability to conduct a credit card transaction with an online merchant – there would be no e-commerce.  The complex of events (both theoretical advances and deployment of practical, useful software) that allow a user to type a credit card number into a web browser and be reasonably assured of its safety is a game-changer, making secure communication and secure commerce a reality for (potentially) all users of the Internet.  Without these artifacts, we would have no Amazon.com, no eBay, no thriving online pornography industry,

Mobile computing and communication

Twenty years ago, computing was a desktop experience.  “Portable computers” were the size of a briefcase.  Communication was via 9600 baud telephone modem.  Contrast that to today:  2 pound laptops that fit in a mailing envelope, mobile phones with Web browsers that fit in a shirt pocket, and ubiquitous WiFi and 3G cellular at many millions of bits per second.   Clearly, mobile computing and communication – the untethered lifestyle – is a game-changer.

Expert systems become ubiquitous

Thousands of routine decisions daily are made by computer systems that have specialized knowledge of a problem area. In the past, rule changes at a central office – e.g., the IRS, or the headquarters for a corporation – were incorporated slowly into practice. With expert systems, the people making the decisions have the benefit of codified knowledge bases that reflect current policy and practices.

Research on expert systems began in the 1970’s with support from DARPA, the National Institutes of Heath, and NSF. Expert systems have subsequently become an essential part of the IT toolkit for every major company. Help desks, credit checking and equipment troubleshooting are examples of systems that have been replicated many times over and are routinely saving money for business and public institutions.

Expert systems technology is a game-changer.

Robotics in everyday life

Twenty years ago, robots appeared in artificial intelligence laboratories, automated assembly lines, and science fiction movies.  In recent years, iRobot Corporation has sold roughly 1,000,000 Roomba robotic home vacuum cleaners annually, and multiple robotic automobiles have completed the DARPA Grand Challenge and Urban Challenge, autonomously navigating a 150-mile desert course and a 60-mile urban course.  Robots have entered the mainstream of society, integrating a wide variety of Artificial Intelligence technologies such as computer vision, sensing, and planning.  This is a game-changer, and the best clearly is yet to come.

Digital media

Today, almost no one thinks of photography in any form other than digital.  The means by which we capture, edit, and share digital images are the result of multiple breakthroughs in computer science.

Similarly, digital compact disc audio – a breakthrough when it entered the mainstream only two dozen years ago – is going the way of the dinosaur, replaced by MP3 audio on personal devices such as iPods.

Our video entertainment is in digital form too – whether on a DVD, a personal video device, streaming media, or a video game.

Digital media is revolutionizing entertainment and the entertainment industry – a game-changer.

GPS, mapping, and navigation

GPS – the ability to pinpoint your position nearly anywhere on earth – is a marvel.  But even more amazing are the algorithms that provide navigation – available on the Web, and in $200 self-contained portable devices from Garmin, TomTom, and others.  GPS, mapping, and navigation are game-changers.

Collaborative filtering and recommender systems

Collaborative filtering and recommender systems dramatically altered how we think about computing applications by introducing the idea that the actions and preferences of other people could be a useful resource in computations intended to support someone else’s activities.  This is easily appreciated by a broad audience – anyone who has used Amazon.com’s “people who bought this also bought…” or other social features; a somewhat narrower audience will also appreciate that a major improvement in search engine performance occurred when they started taking into account link structures and then click behaviors.

There’s a clear  tie to computing research, both in work on algorithms for using data from other people, and in interfaces for collecting it and presenting predictions or recommendations.  The idea was first articulated in CACM and in the ACM CSCW and CHI conferences, and there are now thousands of papers about it.

A few additional ideas that were suggested

These need fleshing out or weeding out!  Our comments in [blue brackets]

  • Something related to applications of machine learning – the applications within computing (e.g., NLP, vision, graphics), to other sciences (with big data), to finance (credit card fraud, and dare I say Wall Street) abound [for sure – needs fleshing out]
  • Something related to advances in software engineering, and the application of logic to analyzing both hardware and software designs and artifacts [the application of logic might work; we still have a “software crisis,” though, and “there (still) is no silver bullet,” so need to be careful with claims]
  • Something related to scientific computing and large-scale computational science, simulations, etc. [we meant this to be covered by one of our original topics – “the transformation of science via computation”]
  • Virtualization [can someone say “1960s”?]
  • Network coding [would need to be painted larger]
  • Compressed sampling/sensing [would need to be painted larger]
  • Quantum computing [premature]
  • Elliptic curve crypto [covered crypto under secure communication]
  • Molecular computing [come see us in 10 years!]
  • Randomized algorithms [would need to be painted larger – colored with applications]
  • Theory of distributed computing: impossibility results, Byzantine generals [we meant to feature this under our “cluster computing” topic, which relies integrally on these algorithms; cluster computing is not a hardware breakthrough, it’s a distributed algorithms breakthrough!]
  • Wearable/ubiquitous/mobile computing [covered under mobile computing and communication, a new topic above]
  • Sensor networks [tell me more]
  • Human computation (Captchas, the ESP game, etc.) [maybe …]
  • Computational microeconomics: ad placement, automated mechanism design [sounds good – say more!]

Again, we invite your comments!  Let us hear from you!

Ed Lazowska and Peter Lee

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  • http://tele-immersion.citris-uc.org/ Ruzena Bajcsy

    Collaboration technology using Virtual space in which real people can meet and intercat in real time. This vision is facilitated by recent advances in 3D video and audio capture and reconstruction capabilities.
    What is missing are three things :
    real time calibration of lighting and the subsequent acount of illumination and camera adgustment;
    content based adaptive data compression;
    adaptive optimal resource allocation considering data acqusition/processng,data display, and newtork capabilities including delays and latency, ALL in REAL time.

  • Marsha Berger

    I think scientific computing/computational science can play an important role here. Somebody like Leslie Greengard (co-inventor of one of the top 10 algorithms last century), PhD in CS, Director of a Math Sciences Institute, could make a good case.

  • Joshua Grochow

    Under “robotics”: robots that help care for the elderly. The most prominent example of this is probably in Japan, due to their aging population. However, this will also affect the U.S. as the Baby Boomers start to get old enough to require significant ongoing care.

    Under “collaborative filtering and recommender systems”: The real point and the strength of the following quotation should be made more explicit, and maybe a little less technical (depending on who the target audience ultimately is):

    “…a somewhat narrower audience will also appreciate that a major improvement in search engine performance occurred when they started taking into account link structures and then click behaviors.”

    The point: CS theory, algorithms, and practice (first brought forth by Google) made the internet VASTLY more useful than it otherwise was. Before this technology, the internet was like a library without a card catalog, only the “library” was thousands of times bigger and growing exponentially faster than any physical library could.

    I also think this affects a much larger audience than you’re giving it credit for. Most people’s first task when using the internet, aside from email, is search. Search is the gateway that lets you find everything else you want to do online.

    In fact, search is so much more useful than other collaborative filtering systems that I think it might deserve to have a game-changing advance all to itself. Amazon recommendations don’t drastically change what many people do everyday; good internet search does.

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