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Many years ago, Fred Brooks relayed a tale about how he chose the first application target domain for his computer graphics research. It was not long after he had left IBM and completed his work on the IBM System/360. He had just moved to Chapel Hill and taken a faculty position at the University of North Carolina.
As Fred tells the story, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, he went to see one of the senior university administrators. He told the administrator that as a computer scientist, he was in the intelligence amplification business. Who on the campus, Fred wanted to know, might most benefit from having their intelligence amplified?
I have recalled this story many times, always with a smile, as I have reflected on the nature of computing and its power.
Amplification and Universality
Computing systems share many features with other instruments and machines, in amplifying human abilities. However, one aspect distinguishes them – namely, their general utility as an intellectual amplifier. Like a universal Turing machine, which can simulate any other Turing machine with arbitrary inputs, computing is broadly – dare I say universally – applicable to human intellectual endeavors, much as all the variants of the inclined plane and lever are applicable to human physical endeavors.
The English scientist Sir Humphrey Davy could well have been speaking about computing when he said, two centuries ago:
Nothing tends so much to the advancement of knowledge as the application of a new instrument. The native intellectual powers of men in different times are not so much the causes of the different success of their labors, as the peculiar nature of the means and artificial resources in their possession.
In a phrase – success accrues to the talented with access to the most effective and powerful tools.
Supercomputing and its applications to science and engineering have been canonical examples of this universal benefit. Powerful new telescopes advance astronomy, but not materials science. Powerful new particle accelerators advance high-energy physics, but not genetics. In contrast, supercomputing advances all of science and engineering because all disciplines benefit from high-resolution model predictions and theoretical validations.
As exciting as those opportunities remain, new ones are emerging in the world of big data.
Big Data: Structured and Unstructured
The tsunami of structured scientific data, produced by a new generation of sensors, and the growth of semi-structured and unstructured data from business, entertainment, social networks and popular culture have created new needs for creative application of our intellectual amplifier. As the recent performance of IBM’s Watson system on the game show Jeopardy! Illustrated, the combination of large-scale data, rich algorithm suites and powerful computing are opening new vistas. Vannevar Bush’s 1940s vision of a Memex, a device capable of storing, indexing and retrieving data from a broad knowledge base, is now within our reach.
It really is about how we use computing as an intellectual amplifier, allowing humans to be more productive and more creative by doing what we do best – asking interesting questions, ones that span multiple disciplines and that illuminate opportunities at their interstices – aided by power analytic and computation engines.