Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

More on “Computing Research that Changed the World”

March 29th, 2009 / in policy, research horizons, resources, workshop reports / by Ed Lazowska

Susan Graham provided a great overview in a post a few days ago of the Computing Community Consortium’s March 25th day-long Library of Congress symposium, “Computing Research that Changed the World:  Reflections and Perspectives.”  I thought I’d provide a few additional details — as well as a reminder that all materials (slides, videos, a summary booklet, etc.) will be available on the CCC website in the very near future.

Inspiration for the program came from a large number of responses from the computing research community to two November CCC blog posts — this was your symposium!

Each of the talks was superb.  Honestly, in 35 years in the field, I’ve never before spent a day with such uniformly high quality of content and presentation.  It was remarkable.  The videos of the 20-minute talks will be a great resource for all of us.

My introductory talk (pdf) provided a quick overview of the impact and promise of the field, as well as a peek at the day’s program.  I drew upon a recent New York Times article describing a Wharton School assessment of “the top innovations of the last 30 years” (more than half of which were direct results of computing research!) as well as a recent CSTB study “Assessing the Impacts of Changes in the IT R&D Ecosystem” (which described a day without information technology as “a day the Earth stood still”).

My closing remarks summarized both the content and the messages of the day-long symposium.  I won’t repeat Susan’s earlier summary of the content, but here are a few additional highlights:

  • Alfred Spector commented that “Google did not arise through spontaneous generation in a garage in Palo Alto — it drew upon a broad set of computing research advances.”
  • A number of the talks — Luis von Ahn‘s, Jon Kleinberg‘s, Rodney Brooks‘s, probably others — alluded to emerging “hybrid systems”:  humans + computers.
  • Daphne Koller presented a terrific catalog of the successes of machine learning.
  • Gene Myers asserted that “computation is the bottleneck in every [modern molecular biology] project” — a perfect bookend to Larry Smarr‘s session-leadoff talk on the transition to data-intensive science.
  • Chris Johnson made it clear that in the past decade, modeling and visualization have become valuable tools in advanced surgical practice — M.D.’s are beating down his door to obtain access.
  • Pat Hanrahan presented neat timelines of the transformation of all media — publishing, audio, photography, and video — from analog to digital.
  • Rodney Brooks ended the technical sessions on a cautionary note:  The future of robotics is robots that operate in unstructured environments.  America has a wide lead now in this field.  But once, we led in manufacturing robotics, and we allowed that lead to slip away.  Will we allow that to happen again?

That’s a good jumping-off point for the messages of the day.  Here’s my list:

  • Computing research truly has changed the world.
  • A rich and complex ecology — involving government, academia, and industry — has made America the world leader.
  • Research has laid the foundation — you can find federally-funded university-based research at the heart of essentially every billion-dollar sector of the IT industry.
  • It consistently takes 10 or 15 years from “research breakthrough” to”billion-dollar sector.” So you need patience — there’s no such thing as “just-in-time research.”
  • Often, “products” in IT are created by synthesizing multiple advances — unlike biomedicine, where a single patent can yield a blockbuster drug.
  • Often, old ideas gain new life.  We’ve had recent breakthroughs in search and in machine learning, but each traces its roots back at least 40 years.
  • While computing research often is motivated by a “strategic objective” — we see a practical value if the research succeeds — we’re often not very good at predicting what the greatest impact of our innovations will be.  Serendipity plays a huge role.  Any attempt to decide early-on what research is “important” is likely a losing proposition.
  • While much of the exciting computing research today is interdisciplinary and collaborative, it’s important to have a balanced portfolio:  core + interdisciplinary, single-investigator + team, etc.

The bottom line:  We have an extraordinary track record — America has an IT R&D ecosystem that again and again leads to massive transformations.  And the next ten years can be our golden age:  on March 25th we heard about some amazing recent accomplishments, and we heard from some extraordinary young people (as well as some extraordinary not-so-young people) who are driving the field forward.  The opportunities for impact are greater than they have ever been.  Go out and change the world!

Ed Lazowska

More on “Computing Research that Changed the World”