April 06, 2007 —
Lazowska: "if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road."
Ed Lazowska, the University of Washington professor famous for his indefatigable efforts to advance the discipline of computer science while preserving its conscience, appeared before a capacity crowd to deliver the first in a series of lectures named after USC's amazingly versatile roboticist/computer scientist/electrical engineer George Bekey.
Bekey, now retired, returned to the University Park Campus to join Viterbi School Dean Yannis Yortsos in welcoming Lazowska, and introducing his speech on "Computer Science: Past, Present, and Future."
First, Bekey spoke about the remarkable contributions of fellow NAE member Lazowska, whom he described as "my role model" in computer science. He cited Lazowska's academic efforts to unify computer programming and computer engineering that has been recognized in his appointment as the Bill and Melinda Gates professor at UW.
He also lauded Lazowska's critical role in the culture of computer science, "serving on more tech committees than anyone," as a key visible and vocal member of multiple influential private, governmental and quasi-governmental bodies including most recently, the Computing Community Consortium, a body formed at the behest of National Science Foundation to advise on future directions for the field. Lazowska chairs the consoritum.
Bekey said Lazowska serves on such diverse bodies as advisory committees to Microsoft and numerous other companies, on the National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, and on the Board of Directors of the Computing Research Association (CRA). CRA's members are the graduate departments and industrial research laboratories in the field. He also served as Chair of the CRA Board from 1997-2001, and currently co-chairs CRA's Government Affairs Committee.
Bekey specifically brought up Lazowska's contributions to the public dialog on issues involving computers and research in the field, noting an influential op-ed written in Science about DARPA's change in funding priorities from long-term basic to research to much shorter term applied interests.
"If you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road," reads the epigraph on his website. Another well-known example of Lazowska's willingness to get out in front of issues is his prominent role in the litigation around the Recording Industry Association of America's efforts to squelch publication of research revealing flaws in a digital music watermarking technique.
Lazowska's remarks began with a staggering single statistic on the state of computer science applications: more transistors are produced each year than grains of rice are harvested. Only a small percentage of these transistors are for computers. Most are embedded in a huge range of devices.
He went on to propose no less than 14 major challenges for computer science in the future. His speech came after he saw extensive demonstrations of work by the Viterbi School and its Information Sciences Institute (ISI), and in many cases he paid particular tribute to the research he had seen, as part of the presentation.
For example when he was speaking about the need to "re-architect the Internet" he specifically mentioned ISI's role as one of the birthplaces of the now pervasive (but still insecure and not scalable enough) web.
In speaking about research in new applications for "entertainment technology" he singled out work he had seen in graphics and
Lazowska, left, wth Bekey center, and Yortos. (Diane Ainsworth photo)
game development during his tour, noting with what seemed close to awe, that "there is more going on here [at the Viterbi School] than anywhere else in the country," while at the same time observing a systemic problem. Computer games are extremely advanced, he said, but game development techniques have stood still, leading to what he called "a Moore's law situation in terms of need for programmers to make new games."
Lazowska also enthusiastically detailed his current personal research, an advanced real time computer linked observatory that will monitor the state of the sea floor surrounding the Juan de Fuca plate in the Pacific Ocean off Washington State.
During the question period, the namesake of the lecture series posed perhaps the deepest question of the hour, saying that danger signs of computer dependence were becoming more and more prominent, notably the fact that societal and individual dependence on computers was increasing faster than computers' ability to correct or avoid critical mistakes that impact individuals.
Even more worrisome, noted Bekey, was a tendency for large organizations to make decisions based on computer factors, rather than ethical considerations.
To Bekey's worries Lazowska added another: social fragmentation or "particularization," caused by the tendency of computer users to wall themselves off into tiny enclaves of like-minded people, each with an us-against-them attitude toward the outside world.
Yortsos noted he could not be more pleased by the combination of lecturer and lecture series. The audience enthusiastically concurred.