Friday, September 03, 2010

CS Happenings

Yesterday I was at a meeting of the CCC Council, add in a couple of emails and I have lots of short notes on CS stuff.

In these meetings I get to hear about CS research beyond theory: High-performance (i.e. very fast) computers, computing at the margins (guess what it is before you click), CS roles in energy and health and the debate on the Venn diagram of robotics and cyber-enabled physical systems. Question of the day: If you walk in a room and a sensor turns on a light, does that count as a robot?

Did you know that you can plug devices into a single spigot and electrical outlet and via machine learning techniques determine water and electrical activity in your home. Sure there are real applications for energy conservation but how about the automated Facebook posts.
Lance has just flushed the toilet but failed to turn off the bathroom lights.
Ed Lazowska send around a 1998 piece by Bob Lucky on electrical engineers with the worry that CS might not be far behind.
Projecting the current trends, future computers will consist of a single chip.  No one will have the foggiest idea what is on that chip.  Somewhere in the basement of Intel or its successor will be a huge computer file with the listing of that chip.  The last electrical engineer will sit beside the file, handcuffed to the disk drive like a scene out of "Ben Hur."  That engineer will be extremely well paid, and his or her every demand will be immediately satisfied.  That engineer will be the last keeper of the secret of the universe: E = IR.
The NRC Graduate Assessment Report will be released on September 28. What will be the top ten CS departments? The report won't tell you, rather giving multiple ranking ranges based on five-year old data. Prepare to be disappointed.

Slides from the Snowbird meeting I posted about in July are now available including a vidcast of Sally Fincher's wonderful talk on CS education. On the topics of talks, you can now watch the video of the STOC tutorial talks and ICM Talks (see also Gowers).

Richard Beigel asked me to pass the following note:
PIs who receive awards or funding increments after January 3, 2010 will be required to upload a Project Outcomes Report within 90 days after their award expires.  These reports are for the general public and will not be edited by NSF.  PIs will be able to follow a link from fastlane in order to upload their reports.  Because public support for science is very important, I would ask PIs to polish these reports and include images (with permission from the owner). To the best of my understanding, NSF PIs can continue to upload all required reports via fastlane and can ignore the login instructions in the link for 


  1. We had two electrical engineers come to our quantum systems engineering laboratory as junior-senior summer interns.

    We handed them them the business-end of BNC cable and said "Start by measuring the noise spectrum of this voltage."

    Those interns jumped back as though the BNC cable were a snake descending from a forest canopy.

    It turned out that neither intern had ever measured a physical voltage on a physical cable ... they had worked only with SPICE (Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis). It disquieted them to experience physical voltages that sometimes differed surprisingly from simulation-based expectations.

    Yes, that summer those interns learned about many surprising aspects of electrical engineering.

    The point is that pretty much all aspects of modern engineering are intimately engaged with system-level issues that relate to complexity. Although theorems are vitally important, seldom are theorems alone sufficient to solve broad-spectrum practical problems. Thus employers tell us that graduating engineers commonly are relatively deficient in their pragmatic capacity to grapple effectively with issues that relate to real-world system-level complexity.

  2. Ms fnd in a Lbry is a short story from 1963 about a civilization that collapsed because of the inability to find data.

  3. If you walk in a room and a sensor turns on a light, does that count as a robot?

    It isn't a robot unless it can do The Robot.

  4. Well, we too used Spice in our day and had labs starting with circuit theory where actual voltages were measured. That sounds like an extreme case of cost cutting.

    Not all electrical engineers are digital design engineers by the way.

  5. As transistor sizes drop through 40 nm it's getting harder-and-harder to measure circuit parameters directly ... this is one of several forges in which nanotechnology and quantum systems engineering are being hammered into shape.

    For this reason, BNC cables are disappearing from our lab too ... in the next generation pretty much everything is migrating onto GNU Radio's USRP/FPGA---"Where bits meet quanta" (as we jokingly say).

    This torrent of change is hugely altering engineers' working conception of reality ... into what, no one is certain.

    That's why we engineers are increasingly borrowing/adapting/repurposing as many ideas from mathematicians, as we can.

  6. That engineer will be the last keeper of the secret of the universe: E = IR.

    I thought that the discovery of the memristor proved the incorrectness of Ohm's law in the same way that general relativity or quantum mechanics proved that classical newtonian physics was incorrect.

  7. If you walk in a room and a sensor turns on a light, does that count as a robot?

    Let me recall my Autonomous Systems course.

    1. It exists in the physical world (it's not a simulation).
    2. It can operate on its own (autonomy)
    3. It receives input from the environment (someone walked in).
    4. It interacts with and alters the environment (light on/off).
    5. It has a clearly stated mission: keep the light on as long as someone is in the room. (goals)

    Therefore it is a robot, with one small requirement: The robot's reaction should be the same whether the person that walks in the room is aware of its existence or not (so that the system is totally autonomous ; the algorithm that controls it should treat the environment only as input and not as its own logic).

    Also,thanks for sharing this great story mr. Ben Fulton. It is funny, it is educational , it is though provocative! Exactly what you'd expect from a man nicknamed "HAL DRAPER"

    Finally, can someone post some introductory links in E = IR ? My initial search revealed it has something to do with computable real numbers?

  8. About E = IR , never mind I just realised it is about physics ! I guess it's kinda ironic, given the context it was mentioned...