An Expanding and Expansive View of Computing

I attended Jim Kurose’s talk on the advances in computer and information science and engineering primarily because I wanted to gain some insights on the state of technology today, as well as get his novel interpretations of the future of the field, being at the crossroads of both industry and academic in his role as Assistant Director at the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Directorate at National Science Foundation (NSF).

During the first half of the talk I learnt that the National Science Foundation mission was more than just advancing science without a specific aim. I had always thought that grants were given out as long as the idea seems plausible and if it succeeds, would boost the development of science and technology to a certain degree. It turns out that NSF’s aims to advance science so as to boost national health, economic wealth and social welfare as well as defense. There are 5 main arms that CISE is focusing on – these 5 are part of the White House Initiatives. These include data science, smart systems, understanding the brain, smart cities, and a nationwide strategic computing initiative. Of those facets, I am most familiar with the one on brain science with the creation of the BrainHub to look into brain science at CMU. I believe this was done after President Obama announced an initiative to research into brain science so as to find new ways to treat disorders such as Alzheimer’s or autism. I think these are great domains to research into, though we should not neglect the security aspect of it. Sometimes, trying to network anything leaves us more susceptible to attacks via side channels. I believe that an engineer can add value to brain research. For example, in 18-220, we learnt about Telegrapher’s Equations in a coaxial transmission line which incidentally can be used to model the transmission of an action potential, an electrical impulse through the axon of a neuron in our nervous system. After all, both science and engineering are cross and multi-disciplinary – both fields are not mutually exclusive.

He later talks about the details of CISE such as its organization chart and finances, which aren’t that all interesting. However, the partnerships that NSF has forged are essential to their success at each cycle of development – from discovery to innovation. This can be seen at present as many companies license patents from universities to be used in consumer-facing products. This way, researchers can leverage their resources and increase the speed at which R&D is being conducted.

Kurose then talks about each emerging field of CISE. He recognizes that a national-scale experimental infrastructure would benefit research so that parallel computation data can be exchanged across institutions from both coasts quickly. He proposes the use of a public cloud infrastructure to achieve this. He also goes into the central theme of his talk, which is that computing should focus more on societal applications, while not neglecting the human aspect of it. It is also beneficial to let computing be pervasive around us, to the point that it does not get in the way of everyday life (ie. it just ‘knows’). Finally, he notes that investment should not solely be poured into upstream research, but also into its most basic tenets – quality computer science courses for students. With that, they have developed pedagogies and curricula for a PreAP as well as Advanced Placement course in Computer Science Principles. I think this is a far-sighted move on their part since there is likely to be more positive externalities in quality computer science education. One proposal to think about for engineering is whether our pedagogy can transition to a more application-based, hands-on education, rather than the systematic, theory-based one we have now.

In sum, I feel that I gained some insights into the role of NSF and what they have done in improving the quality of research and education. However, he did not cover some of the points he promised to make in the questions the audience posed in the middle of the session, such as the one on Power and Water sustainability – how much research has been done in ensuring such natural resources remain available into the future? Also, I would actually like to learn more about the NSF funding process – how grants are given and what the process is like. Last year, I went for a talk on patent registration and I found the whole process very enlightening – I was hoping this talk would shed some light on this process.

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