An article in IHT today precipitated this post although the general idea has been fermenting in my mind for several weeks. This IHT article, “Young economists search for relevance”, describes how economics as a field is seeing a creative renaissance. The economics of today is more soulful than dismal, and more practical than ever before. It is diving into new areas like causes of racial inequality, high rates of HIV infection, benefits of television for some toddlers, how to maximize happiness, etc. As if to illustrate this trend, The Economist carried an article a couple of weeks back about “Economics discovers its feelings”.
All this branching-out is taking economists into the domain of epidemiologists, public health workers, psychologists, etc. and is expanding their influence beyond the traditional spheres of monetary policy and the like.
What has all this got to do with the computer industry? Well, if you buy that the network is the computer then you’ve got to be in awe of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the last 20 years. Who could have imagined in the early days of ARPANET that Internet would be about social networking, online gaming, blogging, ecommerce and entertainment? What a distance we have covered from the days of ftp.
Much of this change has not been predicted. After all, Bill Gates and Microsoft woke up to the Internet potential only in 1995. This is not surprising. As they say predicting innovation is something of a self-canceling exercise: the most probable innovations are probably the least innovative. P.J. Rourke writes in an article on innovation (subscription required) that the…
…history of humankind’s development can be summed up as the story of surprise. Adam Smith failed to forecast the Industrial Revolution despite his friendship with James Watt, inventor of the steam engine that powered it. And who would have prophesied MySpace, Oprah, or a TSA ban on hair-styling gel in quantities greater than three ounces?
You are probably still wondering where I am taking you with all this. My point is that the kind of soulful revolution that economics is seeing today is also strongly needed in computer science. I am not suggesting that the “old” computer science of operating systems, programming languages, database systems and networking is passé. No, instead, my view is that we need to build on the foundational subjects to address the new research questions that have suddenly become important. For instance, we need computer scientists thinking about moving beyond passive retrieval of documents to proactive supply of information based on a clever extraction of intent. We need computer scientists bridging community science and computer systems. We need computer scientists applying AI to the web. You get the idea.
In essence, this is about having our best computer scientists collaborate with experts in other fields, mostly in the realm of social sciences, to develop new insights and knowledge. This is a fairly radical change to the traditional computer science world of mathematics and algorithms.
Happily some of this change is starting to happen. Yahoo has recently added Ron Brachman from Darpa, Raghu Ramakrishna from University of Wisconsin (Madison), Michael Schwarz from Stanford, Andrei Broder from IBM Research, etc. to address these new inter-disciplinary problems of today. In Aug’06, Wall Street Journal covered this story in its article, “Hoping to Overtake Its Rivals, Yahoo Stocks Up on Academics” that resulted in some discussion here and here. I did a quick search and found that ACM is also rethinking the computer science curriculum. All this is good news indeed. We do seem to be moving towards a new field of computer science with a soul!
[Some days back I wrote about a similar change that’s needed among the software practitioners in my post, “A Whole New Software Engineer”.]