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Talking With PCAST

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Carnegie Mellon Professor Jeannette Wing

I was honored to have the opportunity to talk with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) on September 2, 2010, at the Keck Center in Washington, D.C. I opened with a 20-minute presentation, which was followed by a question and answer period. The topic of my session was networking and information technology, since PCAST is doing a review of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program (NITRD), but I chose to speak more broadly about the importance of computer science and its impact on our economy, society, and other science and engineering disciplines.

I told three stories: The Google Story, Model Checking, and Machine Learning as a way to illustrate the importance of sustained federal funding of basic research in computer science, the rapid pace of innovation in our field, and the deep scientific contributions we offer besides our obvious technological ones. Using my three drivers of computing framework, Technology-Society-Science, I presented some trends for the future including: Big Data, Cell+Cloud, Cyber-Physical Systems, Socially Intelligent Computing, and emerging computing substrates under Technology; "A^7: Anywhere Anytime Affordable Access to Anything by Anyone Authorized,'' under Society; and questions like "What is computable?"  (see "Five Deep Questions in Computing") under Science.

I emphasized the importance that advances in computer science have in addressing societal grand challenges such as sustainability/energy, healthcare, transportation, education, and security, thereby also placing our role in the context of the Obama Administration’s priorities in science and engineering. I also made some specific recommendations for NITRD. Since most scientists think "high performance computing" when they think of computer science and since NITRD was created from the High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 (before browsers or search engines even existed!), I assumed PCAST understood our role in scientific computing and is cognizant of the trend toward exascale computing. Finally, I reminded PCAST that computer science is part of STEM and argued the importance of learning computer science concepts (aka "computational thinking") at the K-12 level.

The Q&A session was lively, starting off with questions on K-12 computer science education and the use of computing technology for learning. Education was clearly on PCAST’s mind since that afternoon they were going to discuss a report they plan to release on K-12 STEM education. Other questions ranged from topics such as (paraphrasing) "From a physics perspective, is there a maximum volume of information we can have?" (a nice challenge question for the theoretical computer science community since I think it begs the question "What is information?") and "What is the seamy underbelly of the optimistic picture [I] painted? (my answer: cybersecurity and privacy).

Besides trying to give PCAST a sense of computer science as a discipline, three of the most important messages I tried to convey to PCAST: 1) Advances in computer science help accelerate the pace of innovation and discovery in nearly all other fields; 2) Advances in computer science are needed to address society’s and our nation’s grand challenges; and 3) Computer science has a rich intellectual agenda.

My slides are available in .pptx ( and .pdf ( formats; please see the Notes pages of my Powerpoint for my transcript.




apparently a question was asked at the end of this talk "what is the maximum volume of information"? see a discussion by the theoretical computer science community here

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