Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thoughts on Computer Science's 'Sputnik Moment'

I have not had the chance to blog of late. The past few months have been extra-ordinarily busy with lots of research ideas in the pipeline and I along with my colleague and husband am also into teaching now with the newly introduced "Introduction to Web Science and Technology" course at the Faculty of Computer Science, Institute of Business Administration. It's been a great experience working in Pakistan trying to evolve Computer Science research culture here at par with international standards: it is a tough but all the same a fascinating journey.

Today I am writing on the request of a student who asked for my thoughts on the debate being conducted in New York Times on the topic of "Computer Science's Sputnik Moment", it all began when I shared one aspect of this debate on my Facebook wall. I shared the viewpoint of Dr. Ed Lazowska (University of Washington) who believes Computer Science to be central to our future. What particularly appealed me was his statement below:

For students who want to change the world, there is no field with greater impact or leverage than computer science. Just take a look at the 2010 report by the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, which characterized computer science as “arguably unique among all fields of science and engineering in the breadth of its impact.

I received a private message from a student who had a disagreement with this view point and he shared Vivek Wadhwa's arguments on the same debate. The student who happens to be an alumnus of FAST-NUCES wanted to know my viewpoint on the famous "tech bubble." The premise behind his argument was that of today's students flocking to Computer Science due to their passion to become the next Zuckerberg, and the driving factor behind a rise in Computer Science grads is gimmicky social media applications which in spite of being a major innovation is a bubble. The premise is no doubt strong; however, the point being missed here is the difference between a scientist's approach and a technologist's approach. Wadhwa lacks the insight necessary to grasp the point being made by Dr. Lazowska which is that Computer Science as a whole new science has the potential to impact almost all other fields of science: it is indispensable for society today.

Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic and this in my opinion may be one of the reasons he fails to grab the essence of Computer Science as a whole. True that a large chunk of today's students run after the sparkling thing called social media but it often happens that their perception of Computer Science changes once they explore the theoretical marvels of this field. A glaring example of this is the Web Science course I am conducting at the Institute of Business Administration - initially students did not understand what the course was about and what they will be learning in it for sadly Web to them means ASP, PHP, HTML and nothing beyond that. Once we began teaching the Web from a scientific perspective students were simply amazed; we are at the point where they think beyond SEO and are well aware of the science behind search engines. The point to be illustrated is that students may not see the real depth in science first but it is not just their fault: those responsible for Science curricula should be doing things the right way and this will definitely create a difference.

Secondly, the point is not about lasting careers or high-paying jobs: it's about making a difference to the world through Computer Science. The point is about pursuing Computer Science because your country needs you and not because you need a mere job! That's what's meant by a "Sputnik moment." Look at the reports that Lazowska links to -- Computer Science is a key to the future due to its vast potential to deliver in areas that matter to our countries such as the health sector, the energy sector, the military surveillance sector and many such others. I can go on and on but what really is disturbing is the naiive approach of our students who have limited life goals and no vision on a broader scale.

Furthermore the examples that Dr. Lazowska quotes are of Noam Chomsky, Watson and Crick. Obviously, these people were not new kids on the block aiming to become the next Zuckerberg, and were not simply running after some social media setup. They were scientists with a vision: a vision to further knowledge so that it serves as a foundation for generations to come. Many of the Google tools you play with and spread on your social networks would not have even existed without Computer Scientists like Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, and Brian Kernighan.

I would love to hear thoughts on this particularly from the Pakistani Computer Science circles be it students or researchers. It is hard to get people in Pakistan engaged in a knowledgeable debate and this is true even for people who have done their PhD's or PostDocs, but it's always worth a try. So feel free to add your viewpoint in the comments section.