This article is published in the May 2009 issue.

Computing Research that Changed the World

On March 25, federal policy-makers and computing researchers came together for the CCC-organized symposium “Computing Research that Changed the World:  Reflections and Perspectives” to examine the game-changing computing research advances of the past two decades and to extract lessons for structuring future programs to sustain that remarkable track record.

Through the kind auspices of Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN), Chair of the House Science Committee, the symposium was held in the Members Room of the Library of Congress, a spectacular venue. Other honorary co-sponsors included Congressman Ralph Hall (R-TX), Congressman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), Congressman Vern Ehlers (R-MI), Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ), and Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). The invitation list consisted of policy-makers, agency directors, next-generation computing researchers, and a (very) few old-hand researchers.

Choosing the specific advances to feature was a difficult task. Many dozens of members of the computing research community made suggestions by posting comments in response to a solicitation on the CCC Blog ( Ultimately, the symposium explored:

  • The Internet and the World Wide Web
    • Alfred Spector outlined the technologies that enable us to Google.
    • Eric Brewer explained the emergence of the cloud.
    • Luis von Ahn showed how reCAPTCHAs are being used to build accurate digital archives of corpuses such asThe New York Times.
  • Evolving Foundations
    • Barbara Liskov explained the key ideas and challenges behind security in distributed systems.
    • Daphne Koller highlighted some of the myriad applications enabled or enhanced by machine learning.
    • Jon Kleinberg explored the ways in which online communities are enabling never-before-possible studies of social phenomena.
  • The Transformation of the Sciences via Computation
    • Larry Smarr showed some of the major achievements fostered by the nation’s investments in high-performance computing, and highlighted the importance of huge amounts of data and ultra-high-bandwidth networking for future progress.
    • Chris Johnson showed the rapid evolution of visualization techniques for the biomedical sciences.
    • Gene Myers gave a fast summary of genome sequencing past and future and the opportunities to drive progress in molecular biology as a data-driven science.
  • Computing Everywhere!
    • Deborah Estrin showed the wondrous new applications that are being enabled by the ubiquity of sensors, and the research challenges that must be met.
    • Pat Hanrahan highlighted the remarkable evolution of digital media from text to audio to video to photography to HDTV.
    • Rod Brooks summarized the stunning advances in robotics.

Each talk lasted 20 minutes, and each session concluded with a panel discussion of future research challenges. Following the four technical sessions, the symposium turned to a session on Moving Forward, a panel with all presenters addressing questions from the audience.

The day began with an introductory presentation by Ed Lazowska, and ended with a Closing Session where Ed summarized both the content and the messages of the day, and four demonstrations highlighted active research:

  • Autonomous Flying Robots: A Bird’s Eye View; from MIT.
  • Information Technologies to Support the Challenges of Autism and Related Developmental Disorders; from Georgia Tech.
  • Personal Environmental Impact Report (PEIR); from UCLA.
  • Scientific Computing and Visualization for Medical Image Analysis; from Utah.

In addition, Congressman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL), Chair of the House Science Committee Sub-Committee on Research and Science Education, discussed his views of the importance of computing research.

The speakers did an outstanding job in making their talks accessible to the diverse audience. Consequently, these are great talks to share with student and other audiences to show them what computing is really about. The proceedings were videotaped, and full video of each presentation is available on the symposium website, as well as pdfs of each speaker’s transparencies (or transparency videos for the two presentations with substantial animations). Permission is given to use all materials for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit to the presenter and to CRA/CCC.

And the lessons the participants extracted?

  • Computing research truly has changed the world.
  • A rich and complex ecology—involving government, academia, and industry—has made America the world leader.
  • Research has laid the foundation—you can find federally funded, university-based research at the heart of essentially every billion-dollar sector of the IT industry.
  • It consistently takes 10 or 15 years from “research breakthrough” to “billion-dollar sector.”  So you need patience—there’s no such thing as “just-in-time research.”
  • Often, “products” in IT are created by synthesizing multiple advances—unlike biomedicine where a single patent can yield a blockbuster drug.
  • Often, old ideas gain new life. We’ve had recent breakthroughs in search and in machine learning, but each traces its roots back at least 40 years.
  • While computing research often is motivated by a “strategic objective”—we see a practical value if the research succeeds—we’re often not very good at predicting what the greatest impact of our innovations will be. Serendipity plays a huge role. Any attempt to decide early on what research is “important” is likely a losing proposition.
  • While much of the exciting computing research today is interdisciplinary and collaborative, it is important to have a balanced portfolio:  core + interdisciplinary, single-investigator + team, and so on.

And the bottom line:  We have an extraordinary track record—America has an IT R&D ecosystem that again and again leads to massive transformations. And the next ten years can be our golden age: on March 25 we heard about some amazing recent accomplishments, and we heard from some extraordinary young people (as well as some extraordinary not-so-young people) who are driving the field forward. The opportunities for impact are greater than they have ever been. Check out the symposium website and then go out and change the world!

Computing Research that Changed the World