Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Sputnik Moment

Earlier this month the New York Times had a story Computer Studies Made Cool, on Film and Now on Campus followed-up on a series of short essays on Computer Science's 'Sputnik Moment'. No doubt computer science is a hot major again, the number of CS majors at Northwestern has doubled over the past few years and I hear similar stories elsewhere. My daughter's high school will offer computer science for the first time in years. Big companies are using real computer science ideas from IBM's Watson to Netflix's recommender systems to nearly everything Google does. Obama talks robots at Carnegie-Mellon.

Mehran Sahami called this Computer Science's Sputnik Moment, evoking the phrase used by the president in his State of the Union Speech.
 Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon.  The science wasn’t even there yet.  NASA didn’t exist.  But after investing in better research and education, we didn’t just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.
This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.  Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the Space Race.  And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal.  We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -– (applause) -- an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.
The fate of that budget remains unclear in the current congress.  But there's an excitement for CS and science in general that we haven't seen since the 60's.

Computer Science seems to run in cycles, we build up excitement (the spread of personal computers in the early 80's, the Internet in the 90's and social networks and machine learning today) and soon after people see these as commodities and the excitement wanes. We need to not squander the current good will, find a way to keep CS exciting. The computer science story has a long way to go. Computer science needs to be a front office profession leading the way and not just in the back office keeping it going.


  1. The phrase "Sputnik moment" is inspiring rhetoric ... but it is also a rather literal description of the TCS enterprise.

    One reason is that we can substitute the phrase “simulation of dynamics” for the phrase “computation of functions” in classic TCS texts like Juris Hartmanis' Feasible Computations and Provable Complexity Properties. The result can be read as a treatise on the complexity-theoretic limits to systems engineering (and this is a major practical reason why we engineers care about TCS nowadays).

    Another reason is that in-depth historical analyses of the world's 20th century "Sputnik Moments" are now available, and make fascinating reading. Three recent examples are Stephen Johnson's The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs (2002), Neil Sheehan's A Fiery Peace in a Cold War (2009), and (less formally but more entertainingly) Craig Venter's autobiographical A Life Decoded (2007). The key enabling role of TCS advances in creating and sustataining these enterprises is thoroughly documented in these three (and many more) works.

    Meanwhile (in the corridors of biomedical research facilities anyway), students are speaking heresies among themselves: "Physics in Russia is dead and physics in America is dying" and "Wet-bench experiments are for robots" are among the heresies that I have heard. These heresy-minded students appreciate research programs that once hired two wet-bench post-docs now hire one simulationist and contract-out the wet-bench research.

    Do I argue with heretical students? No, never. First because it is very doubtful that I could say would convince them, and second because I wonder whether their heresies might be right.

    Moreover, it is good news that today's heretical students by no means foresee the end of enterprise … to a sympathetic these students will speak their dreams of enterprises far larger than any attempted in the 20th century, and in every enterprise TCS plays a key enabling role.

    That new global-scale enterprises are necessary to the security and prosperity of a planet of 10^10 people is evident … that sustained advances in TCS (conceived broadly) are necessary to these enterprises also is evident … and so we may wish success for the present generation of heretical studentst … and for the advances in TCS that are fueling their dreams.

  2. As a follow-on, it would be mighty interesting (to me anyway) if students posted their personal favorite TCS hopes/heresies.

  3. Lance, did your twitter account get hacked? How else do you explain your tweet on "single mom working from home"...?

  4. Building and capitalizing on excitement is tough because CS as a field is too risk averse. There are too many followers and not enough leaders, because the leaders are shot down. Algorithmic game theory is a good example, where it seems like researchers are too willing to ask the acceptable questions and not willing enough to ask totally different questions. It is no wonder biology and physics trump us in PR again and again.

  5. Over-investment is not a good thing. It creates bubbles which eventually explode. That is what has happened in the previous decades. The mood in US prefers easy fast short term gains to stable continues long term objectives. I say in US because I don't see a similar situation in Europe. We have seen this in housing markets, in financial institutions, ..., the same applies to CS. We should have long-term plans for CS to have continues stable balanced growth, not sharp rises and sharp falls. But this is very difficult to achieve when personal and group greed heavily overwhelms the sense of community and coordination with others.

  6. I confess to being surprised by the paucity of posts on this topic -- which IMHO is vital to the entire STEM enterprise (not just CS/CT).

    Lance's Tweet about "the anonymous, the powerful, and the drunk" being the three kinds of folks who post here, confronts us with the dismaying realization, that when it comes to 21st century enterprises on the scale of Sputnik/Apollo:

    * "the anonymous" have no heretical plans,

    * "the powerful" have no sober plans, and

    * "the drunk" have no crazy plans.

    Gosh ... that's kinda dispiriting ... are we to infer that the future of the Computational Complexity weblog (and by extension, the future of the STEM enterprise) belongs to "the passive", "the snarky", and "the cowed"? Let's hope not! :)

  7. Let me contradict Anonymous 6:32--anarchy and bursts are good. While Europe had meetings about networking standards, the US implemented the Internet.

    One would think that an orderly, methodical way of doing science, with a clear priority for important research directions, concentrating efforts on pursuing these directions would be a good way to do CS. One would be wrong.

    The problem is to find out which of these directions are going to be fruitful, and as Mark Twain supposedly said, it is very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.
    A somewhat anarchic system turns out to be fairly good at it. This is particularly true in TCS.

    The danger, presumably, is that researchers will not keep on working on important problems ,but flitter from one unimportant trendy subarea to another. However, it is clear that some of these trendy subareas did yield results like depth-first search, ot Akamai, or Google. At the same time researchers like Babai, Blum, Hartmanis, Impagliazzo, Mulmuley, Razborov, Valiant or Widgerson were able to pursue deep problems for decades.

    So, long live to excitement, disorder, and good Theory!

  8. Lance's Tweet is about the "disinhibited".

    On any given day, the "uninhibited" can wander thru and fill-in:

    1. Heretical Plan: Go back to Classical Metaphysics and look for the hidden order in things. How do we explain "action at a distance" - be it the entangled properties of quantum particles in Theoretical Physics or the color of vertices separated by a zillion edges in Theoretical Computer Science.

    2. Sober Plan: Becoming powerful requires a good game plan or algorithm executed by a few; mutual survival may require the best game plans executed by the enlightened many.

    3. Crazy Plan: Recon the space where the Theory of Complexity dwells.

    To paraphrase W.C. Fields, there is no shortage of folks who will venture in where angels fear to tread.

  9. The above posts by CSProf and Jim Blair were very enjoyable (IMHO). They exemplify a favorite maxim of Intel's Andy Grove:

    "Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos."

    No tools serve Grove's two-fold strategic intent better than the double-edged tools of TCS/QIT.

    More double-edged posts, please! :)


    @TechReport{author={Burgelman, Robert A. and Grove, Andrew S.}, title={Let Chaos Reign, Then Rein In Chaos---Repeatedly: Managing Strategic Dynamics For Corporate Longevity}, year=2007, month=Jan, institution={Stanford University, Graduate School of Business}, url={}, number={1954}}

  10. What about FOCS 2011 accepts, dudes?

  11. I think with social media, apps and other devices will continue this excitement for awhile. The accessibility of technology now gets more people involved so you don't have to be extremely wealthy or over-the-top intelligent to use technology in today's society. The more and more people use computer science and technology, I think the better for our future developments. You look to iPhones and other accessories that continually improve. People are afraid to purchase the newest gadget because they know a week or two later, a newer version will come out. That's a good sign