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Communications of the ACM


Looking Backward and Forward

MIT's Barbara Liskov and Rodney Brooks

Courtesy of The Computer Research Association

What are the major computing innovations of the recent past? How did research enable them? What advances are on the horizon, and how can they be realized? These were among the key questions addressed at an invitation-only symposium held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, in March.

The symposium, "Computing Research that Changed the World: Reflections and Perspectives," was organized by the Computing Research Association's (CRA's) Computing Community Consortium in cooperation with a half-dozen U.S. congressmen.

"The main goals were to explore past game-changing research in the computing fields to understand how they came about and then to take a peek at the future to see how this knowledge could be used to maximize the chances for future game-changing research," says CRA Executive Director Andrew Bernat.

"It became pretty clear that there is no foolproof way to figure out what research will turn into the big hits of tomorrow; rather, that big hits generally are a combination of independent efforts driven by curiosity and applications," Bernat says. "No one foresaw the ultimate outcomes of the initial research, so we must continue to fund a broad range of efforts in [multiple] sub-disciplines, using a variety of funding mechanisms."

The symposium's sessions included The Internet and the World Wide Web, which examined areas such as search technology and cloud computing; Evolving Foundations, which looked at the security of online information and global information networks; The Transformation of the Sciences via Computation, which covered topics such as supercomputers and the future of medicine; and Computing Everywhere!, which focused on sensing, computer graphics, and robotics.

Each session featured three talks and a short discussion that identified future challenges. The sessions were followed by an hour-long discussion among all the speakers, with comments from attendees, and a call to action for the future.

As for which areas of research seem particularly promising, Bernat says mobile computing will "continue to be a huge area for exploration and change as are digital media of all types. And networking will continue to boomnot just computer networking, but social networks which will help us understand the dynamics of human behavior."

Daphne Koller, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and one of the symposium's session speakers, says one of the most exciting directions in computing is the ability to use computational methods and models to analyze scientific data, particularly biomedical data.

"New biological assays are producing important data at an ever-increasing rate," Koller says. "These data have the potential of providing unprecedented insight into basic biological processes as well as into the mechanisms and processes underlying human disease. They also have the potential of allowing us to understand the complex genetic and environmental factors that lead to differences in human phenotype, including both disease and response to drug treatment."

However, Koller adds, it's impossible to extract these insights without new computational methods. "Developing these tools is a direction where a lot of progress has been made," she says, "but much more work remains to be done."

Videos and other material from the symposium are available on the CRA Web site, and the Computing Community Consortium will host additional symposiums later this year, including one on artificial intelligence and education and another on educational data mining.

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Bob Violino is a writer based in Massapequa Park, NY, who covers business and technology.

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UF1Figure. From left: Daphne Koller, Stanford; Barbara Liskov, MIT; Rodney Brooks, MIT and Heartland Robotics; and Alfred Spector, Google, were among the symposium's session speakers.

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