Washington Post OpEd: Ready for High-Tech Progress?

Washington Post columnist Sebastian Mallaby has an interesting op-ed today inspired by news of Microsoft chairman Bill Gates’ tour of college campuses, urging students to consider majoring in computer science. The piece does a good job of making the case that Gates makes in his talks to students — computing is a field with a history of producing really great stuff that promises to make even more really great stuff in the future.

In most fields of human endeavor, you hope for gradual improvements: an engine that’s somewhat more efficient, a medicine that improves life expectancy by a few months. But computer power progresses exponentially, warping social life, intellectual horizons and the business playing field.

And Mallaby lays out some examples:

Smart watches will download weather forecasts and news headlines over wireless connections. Smart phones will scan products in department stores to check where better prices can be found. Notebook computers will be portable libraries with the weight of just one novel — libraries that allow you to scribble in the margins and share your witty insights wirelessly with friends. Your home computer will respond to instructions both written and vocal, and it won’t be a computer so much as a network. Music, videos, games, photographs — oh, yes, and all your lofty intellectual outpourings — will be beamed around the house to a variety of screens and speakers. The tablet on the kitchen counter will display recipes and shopping lists. The plasma screen on the wall will be for family photos.

…All great examples of some of the foreseeable future in computing. And Gates deserves enormous credit for taking on this role of cheerleader for the field. With the current trends facing the discipline, and a general trend of US students shying away from careers in math and the sciences, this effort is sorely needed.
The only additional thing I’d wish for in these kind of presentations, especially for prospective students, would be to add more sense of purpose to the call. We’ve had a very interesting discussion about this piece amongst the members of CRA’s Government Affairs Committee, including this great observation about what could be said about the “calling” of a career in science generally, and computer science in particular, from Peter Lee at CMU (who gave me permission to post it here):

Choosing to devote your life to science and technology is not a “normal” or “safe” choice. It is a choice made by people who are exceptionally smart, caring, and idealistic. Science makes people smarter and less scared, and it also makes the world better. Becoming a scientist means joining a community of idealists.

There’s not much of that in the talks that Gates is giving, but that’s understandable. It’s easy to lose sight of intellectual and ideological appeal when the practical applications are so plainly visible.
Anyway, a digression from the piece, but something that occurred to me and many of the other members of the committee.
The meat of Mallaby’s piece comes in the final three paragraphs though, where he’s right on the money:

A lot of Washington debates are about managing bad stuff: war, terrorism, natural disasters, killer viruses, budget deficits, trade deficits, medical inflation, airline bankruptcies, imploding corporate pension plans. But policy also needs to focus on the good stuff: To figure out how we can accelerate progress. If we don’t fix the budget deficit, we will be setting ourselves up for economic punishment. But if we don’t position ourselves to take advantage of technology, we will be setting ourselves up to miss a huge economic prize.
What must we do to remain prize-worthy? The good news is that, in Gates’s estimation, between 17 and 19 of the world’s top 20 computer science faculties are American, and Microsoft hasn’t yet moved many software jobs offshore. But to keep things that way we need to step up federal research funding and relax post-Sept. 11 visa rules, so that the United States remains what Gates calls “an IQ magnet.” And because smart Indians, Chinese and others are more likely to return home as their countries grow freer and more prosperous, the United States must focus on growing its own talent. Last year two respected global surveys of math skills in eighth and ninth grades put the United States in 15th and 24th place, respectively. That isn’t good enough.
It would take fairly little to address these problems. Last week a panel convened by the National Academies proposed a package of measures that ranged from math prizes for high schoolers to pay raises for math teachers, along with a program to boost federal research funding by 10 percent annually for seven years. The total price tag comes to $10 billion annually, but the nation spends nearly twice that amount on absurd farm subsidies. What kind of priorities are those?

Maybe Mallaby’s seen that argument somewhere else 🙂
The bad news is that the stars are aligning in such a way as to guarantee that there will be no increase for computer science, or the sciences generally, in the foreseeable future. The Republican Leadership is being pushed hard at the moment to find funds to “pay for” the large emergency supplements paid out for hurricane relief. Odds are those funds will come through across-the-board cuts to non-defense, non-security related discretionary spending. Look for science agencies to suffer cuts similar to last year’s across-the-board 2 percent reduction (or worse).
One particular computing program is under an even bigger threat. The Senate voted to approve a $55 million cut to DARPA’s cognitive computing program as part of the FY 06 Defense Appopriations bill. The out-of-the blue cut would hit DARPA’s $114 million “Learning, Reasoning, and Integrated Cognitive Systems” account, effectively cutting the program in half. The House did not call for a cut in its version of the bill, so CRA is working to urge members of the conference committee to abandon the Senate cut and embrace the House number. We’ll have all the details in the next post. I just thought it worthy of mention that at the same time the calls keep coming for increased support of computer science and the physical sciences, and as much progress as has been made to draw the linkage between federal investment in university research and our ability to continue to innovate, a significant percentage of our policy leadership still doesn’t get it.

Washington Post OpEd: Ready for High-Tech Progress?