Recomputing the Future: First of three parts
Think computers have become a commodity, like pork bellies, and computer science an old set of solved problems? Think again.
The computer research agenda is as big as ever before, if not bigger. Experts see important breakthroughs and whole new fields of investigation just opening up. Advances will come in natural-language searches, machine learning, computer vision and speech-to-text, as well as new computing architectures to handle those hefty tasks. Beyond the decade mark, Edward D. Lazowska, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington, expects computers based on quantum physics.
Sure, there are problems. Government funding has declined dramatically in the United States, such that it's no longer clear if the nation will maintain its leadership in the face of growing investments by countries such as China (see part two, next week). But even inside Dell Computer Corp. headquarters in Austin, Texas the beating heart of the so-called commodity computer industry executives understand the importance of new technology in a sector that has plenty of room to grow (see part three, in two weeks).
Lazowska is quick to disagree with anyone who says the big problems in computer science have been solved.
"That's baloney. We are poised to make several breakthroughs in the next few years," said Lazowska, past chairman of the Computer Research Association, a group of more than 200 university and industry labs. "There will be more coming up in the next decade than there was in the last two decades combined."
"In some ways, I have more to talk about now than I ever had in the past," said Rick Rashid, senior vice president of the 700-person Microsoft Research group. "I see huge progress across a broad swath of areas."
Dick Lampman, the director of Hewlett-Packard Labs, shares that view. "The bubble [of computer research topics] keeps expanding it's almost exploding," said Lampman, who oversees a team estimated at about 600 researchers. "The biggest shift is that the classic topics are still there, but [now new applications] are shaping and pushing out the frontiers." The new apps span not only today's big corporate computers, but tomorrow's consumer HDTV sets and mobile phones.
"Computer science is at a transition point," said Jitendra Malik, who chairs the CS department at the University of California at Berkeley. "Earlier, what we did only affected technical people, but now everyone uses the Web and e-mail. That means these issues have a broader impact."
Justin Rattner, the director of Intel's Corporate Technology Group, agreed. "We've moved from a community of experts using machines in glass rooms to an environment where the technology is at everyone's fingertips," he said. "We are . . . standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing a whole new set of equally challenging problems."