This article is published in the February 2019 issue.

Interdisciplinary Research Challenges in Computer Systems (NSF Workshop Report)

All too many of us have experienced how academia’s reward structure seems to favor small projects led by one principal investigator in the jurisdiction of a sub-discipline within a larger discipline. Moreover, the current stability of universities tends to slow the formation of new departments for new disciplines.

In contrast, the problems and opportunities that our society faces in education, commerce, science, and government do not respect academia’s boundaries and can require expertise and progress from many aspects of knowledge. It is for the bold to tackle these!

To this end, NSF commissioned a few researchers from multiple areas to organize a workshop last spring to identify important interdisciplinary research challenges for the 2020s. They recently released their report.

A community-wide call for white papers was issued, and about fifty of the most exciting interdisciplinary visions were selected for discussion. The workshop was organized as a day of talks open to everyone, which attracted about 150 researchers, and a second day of brainstorming and writing by the invitees.

In particular, participants highlighted four challenges:

  1. Developing the components for a usable planet-scale Internet of Things (IoT), with provably energy-efficient devices.
  2. Rethinking the hardware-software security contract in the age of AI.
  3. Making AI a truly dependable technology that is usable by all the citizens in all settings.
  4. Developing solutions to tackle extreme complexity, possibly based on formal methods.

The report was presented at the NSF CSR PI meeting in October 2018.

Consider examining the report to learn more or–even better–develop your own grand challenges in collaboration with experts in other disciplines. The report authors would value any feedback you might have at Grand challenges like these can be funded by NSF Expeditions in Computing: Last year’s call and ten-year retrospective.

Let me close with a quote from Steve Jobs on making connections and creativity:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

Connections are inherently interdisciplinary.

Interdisciplinary Research Challenges in Computer Systems (NSF Workshop Report)