(Requested announcement: Calling all Women PhD Students (and a few undergrads) We will be having our bi-annual Women in Theory (WIT) Workshop this year in Princeton. The dates are June 23-27, 2012. Applications are due on: Feb 29, 2012. Go here for all the relevant information. Hoping to see you in June. From: Shubhangi Saraf, Lisa Zhang, Moses Charikar and Tal Rabin.)
(Guest Post by Bernard Chazelle)
Thanks to Lance and Bill for their kind hospitality. I am delighted to be here.
With the third edition of ITCS (formerly ICS) behind us, I thought it would
be good to share a few personal, biased thoughts on the subject --
"personal" because I do not claim to speak for the Steering Committee;
"biased" because I happen to chair that august body.
First, let me reach for my big bucket of gratitude. Shafi Goldwasser and
Silvio Micali did an amazing job as PC & local chairs and I cannot thank
them enough. A big shout-out to both. Toda Raba to Yael Kalai, too, for her
great help, and to Omer Reingold, Nir Shavit, and their fellow actors for a fabulous
"playback" show. If you missed it, fret not. If future organizing committees have
any sense, the Nir-Omer show will soon come to a conference near you.
This year's ITCS had about 100 submissions, roughly a 20% growth from
previous years, and 118 registrants. Talk attendance never seemed to dip
below 90, a heart-warming figure that would be the envy of many conferences.
In Shafi's and Silvio's deft hands, innovation came out swinging in all sorts of
endearingly creative ways, from session chairs giving annotated previews of the
talks to postdocs and graduating students making 5-min pitches to introduce
themselves and their research. Brilliant! After watching the new generation
of theorists in action, I can tell you that the future of theoretical computer science
looks very bright, indeed!
And the future of ITCS, you'll ask, how bright is that? When I chaired the PC
last year, a reviewer's comment struck a chord: "This submission would
be good for STOC but might not be innovative enough for ICS." Now, that's
the spirit! Of course, plenty of ITCS papers would fit in nicely at STOCS/FOCS.
(Apparently, more than a few tried to fit in.) That said, it would take an advanced
case of color blindness to miss the contrasting hues between ITCS and the rest.
All PC members were instructed to add an innovation axis to their evaluation
space, and, by golly, they did! (And when I use the word "golly," you know
I mean business.)
STOC/FOCS has been accused of all sorts of dastardly deeds unmentionable
on a family blog -- from accepting too few papers to boosting trends to rewarding
technical wizardry. No less. STOC and FOCS might be four-letter words to some,
but to me they're venerable legacy institutions that serve worthy professional
functions, such as allowing junior researchers to trade these four-letter words for
Theory Club membership cards. Nothing to sneer at. Over at Michael
Umesh Vazirani bravely suggested merging STOC and FOCS into one
mega-conference --- SFOCS, I guess. Much as I love the idea, beginning
with the soothing effect of pronouncing the word SFOCS out loud, I didn't come
here for a food fight, so I'll fall back on old New Jersey wisdom and say we
cross that landfill when we come to it. Yet definitely something to mull over.
ITCS provides a venue for quality outside-the-box thinking. Not without reason,
a few have wondered whether the best place outside the box is inside a new
conference. On the plus side, conferences provide ideal platforms to publicize
new work and, for younger scholars, increase the visibility of their research. With
its particular focus on the uncharted, ITCS offers a welcome new outlet for a glut
of quality papers. A conference is a big heads-up, a "breaking news"
banner flashing on the Theory Channel. It's also a chance to initiate lasting
collaborations and meet extraordinary people in pursuit of extraordinary ideas.
It's fun.The downside is that a human being can attend only so many conferences
before "their budget glares red and their head bursts in air" (as they say before
kick-off at the Super Bowl).
This dichotomy, however, isn't quite right. It ignores the tangled web the online
revolution has woven into our lives. Whereas in the past I'd have to go to
a conference to hear a new result, this is no longer so. The PDF will
come to me. It's a given that attendees at many talks will already know the results,
perhaps even the proofs. This has diminished the relative importance of attending
a conference while at the same time increasing its reach, and hence its influence.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying ITCS is so cool you don't even have to go.
I am saying that, in the age of instant downloads, missing this month's Jay-Z &
Kanye West "UGC" gig at the Garden ain't gonna be the heartbreak it would have
been in the days of old. So, while I recognize that the burden of extra travel is a
drawback and the timing always an issue, our wired world alleviates these
concerns somewhat. And if you find this argument too subtle for its own good,
well, remember, there's always the Umesh option.
Another worry heard on Theory Street is fragmentation. I don't get that. The
sociological makeup of all these conferences is pretty much the same, anyway,
so the risk of fragmentation is about as high as that of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
parting ways -- OK, make that Superman and Clark Kent if you prefer. In fact, this
has it exactly backwards. Theory has yet to penetrate many geographical
markets. Eurotheory shares a name with our kind, and little else. With Asia a
promising growth area for our field, it is of more than symbolic value that ITCS
was born in China. All theory conferences today are regional (North America,
Latin America, Europe, Asia, etc). Maybe ITCS can be the exception. At any rate,
to expand both the intellectual footprint and the geographical reach of Theory is
a central goal of this conference.
To close on a personal note, let me get my crystal ball out of its dusty case
and tell you what I see. As the new sciences of the 21st century further embrace
their algorithmic nature, I see ITCS getting enriched with a growing flow of
conceptual imports from physics, biology, economics, etc (and vice-versa).
While the letter T was added to ICS for mundane reasons -- an ACM conference
had a previous claim on the acronym -- I hope ITCS remains unabashedly
theoretical. Yes, you heard right. And as you watch me adroitly duck the
tomatoes sure to be hurled my way for this impolitic stand, you might even spot
a contradiction or two. I mean, how can computing theory reach out to the
sciences without losing its theoretical core? Well, well... Leaving aside the fact
that math developed with precisely that sort of outreach, the answer is easy.
What the "new" sciences (bio, neuro, socio, and all that) lack more than
anything is a conceptual framework. Theoretical computer science can do for
them what mathematics did for physics. Why? Because algorithms are the
differential equations of the 21st c. They are the language of modern science.
That's why. At this point, you expect me to clear my throat and indulge in a
tasteful round of name dropping: "Moreover, as Newton and Einstein used
to say, blah blah..." (I got that from my physicist friends. Works every time.)
But not today. Truth is, delusion won't help our cause one bit. Neither will diffidence
or skittishness, however. These are heady times for computing theory, my friends.
Hand wringing over fine tactical points should not distract us from our common goal,
which is to allow Theory to expand and flourish, to unite and conquer. ITCS aims to
do just that. It is an exciting experiment worthy of your support.
Thanks for your attention and, in a nod to ITCS' roots, a happy Year of
the Dragon to all!