Computing, 2016: What Won't Be Possible? James Rajotte for The New York
Jon Kleinberg, professor of computer science at Cornell, sees "a revolution
in measurement" in the use of computers to analyze social networks.
- By STEVE LOHR<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/peop=
Published: October 31, 2006
Computer science is not only a comparatively young field, but also one that
has had to prove it is really science. Skeptics in academia would often say
that after Alan Turing described the concept of the "universal machine" in
the late 1930's =97 the idea that a computer in theory could be made to do =
work of any kind of calculating machine, including the human brain =97 all
that remained to be done was mere engineering.
The more generous perspective today is that decades of stunningly rapid
advances in processing speed, storage and networking, along with the
development of increasingly clever software, have brought computing into
science, business and culture in ways that were barely imagined years ago.
The quantitative changes delivered through smart engineering opened the doo=
to qualitative changes.
Computing changes what can be seen, simulated and done. So in science,
computing makes it possible to simulate climate
unravel the human
In business, low-cost computing, the Internet and digital communications ar=
transforming the global economy. In culture, the artifacts of computing
include the iPod<http://tech2.nytimes.com/gst/technology/techsearch.html?st=
YouTube and computer-animated movies.
What's next? That was the subject of a symposium in Washington this month
held by the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, which is part of
the National Academies and the nation's leading advisory board on science
and technology. Joseph F. Traub, the board's chairman and a professor
titled the symposium "2016."
Computer scientists from academia and companies like I.B.M. and Google
discussed topics including social networks, digital imaging, online media
and the impact on work and employment. But most talks touched on two broad
themes: the impact of computing will go deeper into the sciences and spread
more into the social sciences, and policy issues will loom large, as the
technology becomes more powerful and more pervasive.
Richard M. Karp, a professor at the University of
Berkeley, gave a talk whose title seemed esoteric: "The Algorithmic Nature
of Scientific Theories."
Yet he presented a fundamental explanation for why computing has had such a
major impact on other sciences, and Dr. Karp himself personifies the trend.
His research has moved beyond computer science to microbiology in recent
years. An algorithm, put simply, is a step-by-step recipe for calculation,
and it is a central concept in both mathematics and computer science.
"Algorithms are small but beautiful," Dr. Karp observed. And algorithms are
good at describing dynamic processes, while scientific formulas or equation=
are more suited to static phenomena. Increasingly, scientific research seek=
to understand dynamic processes, and computer science, he said, is the
systematic study of algorithms.
Biology, Dr. Karp said, is now understood as an information science. And
scientists seek to describe biological processes, like protein production,
as algorithms. "In other words, nature is computing," he said.
Social networks, noted Jon Kleinberg, a professor at
are pre-technological creations that sociologists have been analyzing for
decades. A classic example, he noted, was the work of Stanley Milgram of
who in the 1960's asked each of several volunteers in the Midwest to get a
letter to a stranger in Boston. But the path was not direct: under the rule=
of the experiment, participants could send a letter only to someone they
knew. The median number of intermediaries was six =97 hence, the term "six
degrees of separation."
But with the rise of the Internet, social networks and technology networks
are becoming inextricably linked, so that behavior in social networks can b=
tracked on a scale never before possible.
"We're really witnessing a revolution in measurement," Dr. Kleinberg said.
The new social-and-technology networks that can be studied include e-mail
patterns, buying recommendations on commercial Web sites like Amazon,
messages and postings on community sites like MySpace and Facebook, and the
diffusion of news, opinions, fads, urban myths, products and services over
the Internet. Why do some online communities thrive, while others decline
and perish? What forces or characteristics determine success? Can they be
captured in a computing algorithm?
Social networking research promises a rich trove for marketers and
politicians, as well as sociologists, economists, anthropologists,
psychologists and educators.
"This is the introduction of computing and algorithmic processes into the
social sciences in a big way," Dr. Kleinberg said, "and we're just at the
But having a powerful new tool of tracking the online behavior of groups an=
individuals also raises serious privacy issues. That became apparent this
summer when AOL inadvertently released Web search logs of 650,000 users.
Future trends in computer imaging and storage will make it possible for a
person, wearing a tiny digital device with a microphone and camera, to
essentially record his or her life. The potential for communication, media
and personal enrichment is striking. Rick Rashid, a computer scientist and
head of Microsoft's research labs, noted that he would like to see a
recording of the first steps of his grown son, or listen to a conversation
he had with his father many years ago. "I'd like some of that back," he
said. "In the future, that will be possible."
But clearly, the technology could also enable a surveillance society. "We'l=
have the capability, and it will be up to society to determine how we use
it," Dr. Rashid said. "Society will determine that, not scientists."