This article is published in the November 2007 issue.

Thinking About Computing

Message from the CISE AD

Greetings! I have been the Assistant Director for CISE for three months. It has been eye opening! I begin by sharing with you a set of questions I have been posing to and for our community. I call these “Deep Questions” because they are the kind of far-reaching questions that drive our own day-to-day research and that can inspire the young to enter our discipline. Here they are:

  1. P = NP?
  2. Whatis Computable?
  3. What is Intelligence?
  4. What is Information?
  5. (How) can we build complex systems simply?

The first needs no explanation, neither in what it means nor in what its answer would imply for our field.

In answering “What is computable?” we must consider the underlying machine, abstract or physical, that is the computer. Consider the Internet as a computer. Now ask “What is computable?” Consider a molecular computer, a DNA computer, or even a quantum computer. If those kinds of computers are not mind-bending enough for you, consider a human and a machine working together as a single computer to solve problems that neither can solve alone. Now ask “What is computable?”

The founders of artificial intelligence challenged us with the third question in the 1950s. As our understanding of human speech, vision, language, and motor skills has grown, and as we have made tremendous technical advances in computer science, neuroscience, cognitive science, and the behavioral sciences, the landscape has dramatically changed. We can now probe more deeply and more broadly than when the question was originally posed, in our quest to understand intelligence from the neuron to the brain, from a person to a population.

Nature has her own way of encoding information and it is not as simplistic as using 0’s and 1’s. The genetic code is one obvious example. More sweepingly, by interpreting a DNA strand, a cell, or an organism as a reactive system that processes inputs from its environment and produces outputs that affect its environment, it is no longer metaphorical when we say biology is an information science. Even in computing, we have a chain of representations from bits to data to information to knowledge. And with quantum computing, it’s not bits, but qubits.

Our ingenuity creates computer, communication, and information systems that enhance our daily lives. These systems are complex. Their complexity gives us the richness in functionality that we enjoy today, with time and space performance that spoil us. Their complexity, however, also makes it difficult for us to analyze, model, or predict system behavior, let alone respond to emergent behavior of multiple interacting systems. As complex as these systems are, it is both wonderfully and stunningly amazing they work! Can we build systems with simple and elegant designs that are easy to understand, modify, and evolve, yet still provide the functionality of systems that we take for granted today and dream of for tomorrow? More profoundly, is there a complexity theory for our real-world systems as there is for the algorithms we invent?

Engineering Too

CISE is more than science, it is engineering too. We design, build, analyze, and manage hardware and software systems. Like other engineering disciplines our systems are constrained by the physical world: they interact with Mother Nature, the human user, and of timely importance, the attacker. These environments are unpredictable, unforgiving, and uncontrollable. Unlike other engineering disciplines, our systems are unconstrained in the virtual world: through the unique and inherent power of software our systems are limited only by our own imagination. Our avatars defy gravity, tap into infinite resources, and never die.

I hope you join me in pondering these scientific questions and in marveling at our engineering prowess. I welcome you to share your own Deep Questions and visions for computing with all of us.

CISE Updates and Thanks

I am pleased to announce that Richard Karp, UC Berkeley, is the new CISE Advisory Committee Chair, and that Ty Znati, University of Pittsburgh, is the new Computer and Network Systems Division Director.

I am excited to announce the new foundation-wide Cyber-enabled Discovery and Innovation program (see front page article). For FY08, CISE is sponsoring other initiatives, including Expeditions in Computing, all of which I mentioned in my October Dear Colleague Letter, which is posted on the CISE website (

I thank Peter Freeman for his past stewardship of CISE and for passing on to me a well-managed directorate. I thank Al Aho for his service as CISE AC Chair and Suzi Iacono for her service as Acting CNS DD. I would like to express my sincerest appreciation to Dr. Deborah Crawford, Deputy Assistant Director for CISE, who served as Acting DD for CISE for six months before I joined NSF.

I am eager to continue active engagement with all of you as I serve the community in my new role.

Thinking About Computing