Opportunities for Information Technology
Information Technology (IT) is now central to business and life. The Internet, Silicon Valley, Microsoft, and the Y2K problem are household words. Some economists now believe that IT is having a strong positive effect on productivity. Because computer science (CS), engineering, and business schools have generally taken a narrow view of their fields many universities have or plan to have college-level organizations devoted to IT. Table 1 lists the over forty universities who send deans to a semi-annual meeting organized by Peter Freeman of Georgia Tech.
Table 1. Universities with IT colleges
Colorado at Boulder
Hawaii at Manoa
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
New Jersey Institute of Technology
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rochester Institute of Technology
Tokyo University of Technology
United Arab Emirates
What would be the research agendas of these new colleges?
There are great opportunities and problems created by the onrushing pace of IT. Networking, the Web, and all their associated phenomena are evolving rapidly, and no one can confidently predict the future. Major problems in security, telecommunications policy, and business models need to be addressed by thoughtful research.
Information Technology is changing many aspects of life today and creating many crossover problems that require the collaboration of technologists, social scientists, business experts, and lawyers. Here are some examples drawn from Dave Farber’s http://www.interesting-people.org/, which might better be called “interesting problems.”
Dependability Computer experts have ways to improve the reliability of systems, but the current licensing terms for PC software absolve companies from any responsibility. What market changes or legal changes would alter this situation?
Security Technologists have a large toolkit to protect networks and systems from malicious attack, but there are major issues of convenience and privacy that prevent them from being applied. Technical experts have called for an end to the anonymous net surfer, likening him to the unlicensed driver or unregistered gun owner. Legal experts suggest doing so would compromise free speech. Microphobes see a danger in Microsoft’s Passport approach. How will the net be made safe without impeding its potential?
Microsoft It requires deep technical knowledge along with legal-business knowledge to understand the good and bad effects of Microsoft’s monopoly. For example, technologists strongly preferred the breakup plan that separated the operating system from the applications rather than the one that created competing OS companies. How to cope with Microsoft requires intense collaboration among many different kinds of experts.
Napster and The Digital Millennium Copyright Act This controversial law was engendered by the legitimate fears of music and film companies that digital media would destroy their businesses. Only interdisciplinary research can predict how these businesses will change under various legal constraints. Intellectual property rights are at the center of the future of information technology yet the understanding of this multi-faceted problem is. Technologists understand the hopelessness of stopping digital piracy through technical means and are rewarded for their demonstrations of it with jail time. Business people like those at Bertelsmann and RealNetworks are scrambling to find a viable business model. Lawyers struggle to understand what’s going on.
Questions such at these will shape the world that we hope our students will lead, but we barely understand them today. We must launch the right kind of studies and involve our students in them.
This set of problems does not define a new field, but they show a place to start.
What kind of students should an IT college graduate?
The most tangible piece of our new world is the Web. College students already learn how to exploit it to find low-cost plane tickets and jobs. There are many anecdotes about people using the web to diagnose their medical problems or to muster communities that collectively solve problems. See, for example, http://www.siliconvalley.com/docs/opinion/dgillmor/dg062401.htm. Everyone will master the technical skills to search the net. What are the deep skills that will empower our students beyond what everyone will know?
There must be an attitude change about how professionals work. Generally, we teach our students to be intellectually self-sufficient. Given a tough problem, they are supposed to analyze and think as their first step. If one is in the jungle with no cell phone, this is appropriate; but now everyone is electronically connected to all the knowledge and people in the world, all the time. In the future, the problem-solving acronym should be “ALTA.” Given a problem you don’t know how to solve:
Ask the most qualified people you know, using your network.
Look on the Web, a library, or the Manhattan Yellow Pages, for information about the problem.
Think about what you have learned.
Act on what you think.
Traditionally, the asking and looking are regarded as cheating, or at least not as noble as thinking.
What kind of education best prepares people to operate this way? The skills of the librarian, journalist, businessperson, or lawyer come to mind. However, deep technical understanding in some field is an important attribute for a professional to have especially early in their career.
Figure 1. The Knowledge Profile of a CS major.
Should an IT college produce broad students or deep students? Consider the following argument. Let us use a triangle as in Figure 1 to depict a person’s range of knowledge.
The depth of the triangle’s point suggests how deep the person’s knowledge is. Given a particular person whose ability to cover different areas, there is an educational choice to be made between breadth and depth; but the triangle must have the same total areas.
Figure 2. Depth vs. Breadth with constant area
Whether to be broad or deep is an individual dilemma, but when one is assembling teams of people it seems clear that depth is better if they are diverse.
Figure 3. Team of Broad Students vs. Team of Deep Students
As the picture shows, the team of deep students covers more areas of knowledge in greater depth and can be more effective. This is a geometrical depiction of a social science observation that your immediate circle of colleagues tends to have the same knowledge and approach as you do. When faced with a new problem you should look outside that circle to gain intellectual leverage.
Figure 4. Team of Deep Students from one Specialty
An important tool to teach such students is the interdepartmental project course in which students enter and leave with very different technical skills but learn the skill of collaboration. Here are some excerpts from two Carnegie Mellon course descriptions that exemplify the idea.
Rapid Prototyping, Dan Siewiorek
Groups will be composed of students from multiple disciplines.
Computer Science. Select, port, and adapt existing software to unique features of the application, …Produce the application data and software.
Design. Develop application concept. Generate alternative designs for interaction...
Electrical and Computer Engineering. Determine what should be purchased and what should be custom designed. … Purchase components and external manufacturing services as needed.
Human Computer Interaction. Determine the human-computer interface. … Conduct a final evaluation of the product and the design methodology.
Mechanical Engineering. Generate the mechanical structure to support the hardware and selected human interface.
Building Virtual Worlds, Randy Pausch
This course has students from art, architecture, design, drama, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, human-computer interaction, music, social and decision sciences, and a few other majors. These disciplines all have different standards for how they communicate, how they train their students, and how they evaluate the quality of work. It is extremely important that students in this course be tolerant of the different cultures that are represented. Based on experiences in the real world with these kinds of interdisciplinary teams, one of our goals is “getting through the semester without a fistfight occurring in a group.” To help meet that goal, there are a few basic standards that all reasonable cultures have in common:
Treat everyone with respect, and listen when it’s his or her turn to talk.
Show up, on time, for any meetings you schedule.
Mounting such courses requires the collaboration of teachers from different departments and a relaxation of departmental requirements.
Another tactical consideration is the nature of the students now entering college. They are not like us. If you think the generation gap between Bill Gates and Judge Jackson is bad, read Michael Lewis’s Next which introduces you to brilliant teenagers have completely assimilated and exploited the net. Some also believe all information is free and whatever a computer attached to a net can do is legal. Microsoft, AOL-Time-Warner, and Lewis himself represent a world they plan to run rings around.
How are universities to educate these people? Since they can already hack computers and networks better than any professor, maybe we should teach them about some other things, like the rule of law.
Like CS, the IT movement is responding opportunities and problems from the real world more than an academic intellectual agenda. Like CS, it is attracting academics from different disciplines. Maybe we can predict something from the history of CS.
CS began as an amalgam of Electrical Engineering and Mathematics. The driving imperative was to build computers and then apply them to old problems and new ones. The sixties were an exciting time because all sorts of people came from many different disciplines¾business, psychology, linguistics, etc.
There was a period of cross-pollination between the creators of technology and its users and analysts. Each of the entering people was stimulated to look at their native disciplines in new ways. Then some people, like Alan Perlis, abandoned their disciplines to create something more than an amalgam¾a new chemical compound. In Perlis’s case, the new thing was programming languages a field that could not be confused with anything that came before. Similarly, Minsky, McCarthy, Newell, and Simon created Artificial Intelligence, something neither psychologists nor engineers could call their own.
As time went on, however, the academic field became less eclectic and more focused. Somehow the NSF and the various academies classified CS as one of the hard sciences within the national consciousness as represented. This helped it establish credibility but worked to exclude social scientists and others. Also, electrical engineering departments and engineering colleges succeeded in holding on to the new field in many places. This, too, limited the scope of the field. Finally, as the first graduates of new CS departments began to populate academe in the 1970’s the definition of the field solidified and narrowed to being those things that those graduates studied.
In time, the initial need of the larger society¾creating computers and programming them to solve important problems¾was more than satisfied by the university CS groups. The creation of dependable programming languages was perhaps our most notable contribution. All the solutions that the academics generated, languages, operating systems, tools, and algorithms got taken over by industry leaving academic CS less central to industry.
How broad does it need to be?
If IT is to be an antidote to CS’s narrow focus, creating departments and colleges may be the wrong approach. None of our IT colleges will be broad enough to properly serve society and our students. IT is simply too pervasive.
Some have argued that writing¾the skill required of all educated persons¾should be taught throughout a university’s curriculum. The writing across the curriculum movement had the goal of dispersing the teaching of writing from English departments to all the departments of universities. Whatever the intellectual merits of the case, it continues to be a movement struggling against the departmental structure of education.
What is the new central idea or technique?
To avoid deserving the title “CS Lite” there needs to be a unifying intellectual theme. Software Engineering is still struggling with this problem.
What is the quid-pro-quo for the sub-disciplines?
No new discipline has duplicated the excellent synergy show between theoretical and experimental physicists. The theory and systems wings of CS have tried, but don’t contribute to each other as well.
I see the engineering/policy synergy in IT as having real potential.
How do we fight rigidity?
In ten years the field will start to settle and possibly lose its excitement. One answer for some is to start something new.