Exponentials R Us: Seven Computer Science Game-Changers from the 2000′s, and Seven More to Come

12/24/09

Forty years ago, in 1969, Neil Armstrong left footprints on the surface of the moon. It was an extraordinary accomplishment.

Also in 1969, with much less fanfare and at much less expense, Len Kleinrock’s programmer Charley Kline sent the first message over ARPANET. (The message was “lo” – the first two letters of “login.” Then the system crashed.)

With forty years of hindsight, which of these events has had the greater impact? Unless you’re really big into Tang and Velcro, the answer is clear. From four computers in 1969, the Internet has grown to more than half a billion computers and more than a billion regular users, and is impacting every aspect of our lives.

“Exponentials R Us.” That’s the magic of computer science. It’s what differentiates us from all other fields. (To the extent that other fields are experiencing exponentials, it’s because of computer science – for example, the sensor technology and computational power that are driving biotech.) “Exponentials R Us” is the past, the present, and the future of computer science. If you think you can have greater impact doing something else, you’ve got your head wedged.

With that as context – as the single most important message – here are a few things that have been particularly cool in the past decade:

1. Search. Ten years ago, you would painstakingly organize things – label them and file them – so that you could find them. How 1990s! Today, you can search more than 500 Terabytes of the web (not to mention your own desktop) in 100 milliseconds.

2. Scalability. In the 1990s, Jeff Bezos’s smiling face appeared in advertisements for DEC multiprocessor servers, because the scalability of Amazon.com was limited by the size of the largest computer that DEC could build. Today, that’s laughable—we use hundreds of thousands of piece-of-junk computers running innovative software to create arbitrarily reliable, available, and scalable web services.

3. Digital media. Text. Music. Images. Video. All of it is digital. Downloaded and streamed. Seamlessly edited. With you at all times. Interactive. “It’s just bits.” It’s totally different.

4. Mobility. A decade ago, your mobile phone was a brick, and all you could do with it was make calls (if you were lucky!). Today, high-bandwidth connectivity to all of the world’s digital data is ubiquitous. Ain’t no escaping it, for better or for worse.

5. eCommerce. The only thing as good as being Amazon.com is being UPS. eCommerce is new, it’s big, and it’s growing like Topsy.

6. The Cloud. This transformation isn’t quite complete, but we’re almost there. A few years from now, if you’re a business, having your own datacenter is going to look just about as smart as generating your own electricity. And if you’re a consumer, running your own application software (and doing your own upgrades and your own backups) is going to seem just about as bright. The cloud also provides universal access and sharing. What’s not to like?

7. Social networking and crowd-sourcing. eBay. Craigslist. Wikipedia. YouTube. Blogs. RSS. Facebook. LinkedIn. Flickr. Yelp. Twitter. Sorry, I’ve exhausted my 140 charact

For further information on some of these, and some additional topics, see the wonderful presentations here .

So, what about the next 10 years? I won’t burden you with the Niels Bohr quote. Here are a few things to watch – none of them, unfortunately, surprising:

1. Smart homes. Compare your grocery bill to your electric bill. The former is an instantaneous, complete, accurate itemization of every expense, allowing you (and incenting you) to tune your behavior. The latter arrives once every two months and says “$133.08.” It’s nuts. Within a few years, it will change, thanks to inexpensive sensors and machine learning.

2. Smart cars. You’re seeing the beginnings of this. Adaptive cruise control that monitors the distance to the vehicle in front of you. Stay-in-lane systems. Collision alerts. Self-parking. There will be much more. Even more broadly, transportation will be revolutionized. Smart routing of on-demand neighborhood transit to get you to major transit arterials. Smart routing of transit vehicles and personal autos around congestion – not just the congestion that exists right now, but the congestion that will exist 20 minutes from now. Improved vehicle sharing—Zipcar on steroids. (The average car is utilized only 5 percent of the time. Doubling that should be easy. Think of the improved amortization of the financial and environmental costs of manufacturing the damned things!)

3. Smart bodies. When you take your car into the shop, the mechanic plugs in a diagnostic computer that analyzes a log of performance data and immediately pinpoints the sources of problems—problems you are aware of, and problems you are not. When you visit your doctor, she says “Where does it hurt?” Why is your body not as well instrumented as your car? It will be. The jock market will drive this, but it will become ubiquitous.

4. Smart robots. In the 20th century the U.S. led the world in four great waves of technological advancement: electrification, automobiles, airplanes, and computers. The first large technological wave of the 21st century is shaping up to be robotics. Robots are migrating from structured environments (assembly lines) to unstructured environments (homes, offices, battlefields). The potentials are limitless.

5. The data deluge. The rapid emergence of inexpensive high-bandwidth sensors is transforming every field from data-poor to data-rich. The challenge is to develop automated tools – based on approaches such as data mining and machine learning – to extract knowledge from this mass of data. Whether you are a scientist, an eCommerce site, or a sports team, your future competitiveness depends upon this capability. “eScience” is the buzzword.

6. Virtual and augmented reality. It’s been just so much yap for the past decade, but it’s going to become real in the next. For example, think about Google Street View or Microsoft Photosynth, but with all the world’s photographs from a few billion smartphones. New breakthroughs in computer vision are making this possible.

7. Smart crowds and human-computer systems. Computers are great at multiplying large numbers. Humans are great at recognizing images. What if you need to do both? UW biochemist David Baker, working with UW computer scientist Zoran Popovic, has augmented his Rosetta protein structure calculation software with a web-based videogame providing human guidance. (Teenage gamers are beating the pants off of Ph.D. biochemists – there’s such a thing as too much education.) See it here. More generally, crowd-sourcing, a development of the past decade, will explode, enabling the rapid construction of small, innovative companies.

Note that these are not “just applications” (although there is nothing un-cool about “just applications”). They require fundamental advances in computer science.

Thanks to Tom Anderson, Jean-Loup Baer, Rodney Brooks, Jon Froehlich, Pat Hanrahan, Peter Lee, Hank Levy, Pat Lincoln, Shwetak Patel, Steve Seitz, Sebastian Thrun, and Dan Weld for sharing their ideas with me.

[Editor's Note: This is part of a series of posts from Xconomists and other technology leaders from around the country who are weighing in with the top innovations they've seen in their respective fields the past 10 years, or the top disruptive technologies that will impact the next decade.]

Ed Lazowska holds the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. His research and teaching concern the design, implementation, and analysis of high performance computing and communication systems. Follow @

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  • Rick LeFaivre

    Listening to Ed off-and-on for over 30 years, I am always impressed with his insight and ability to synthesize and summarize deep thoughts. Great post!

  • Mark Minie

    “Teenage gamers are beating the pants off of Ph.D. biochemists – there’s such a thing as too much education.”

    WOW! Is there data to support this? Please share! This could have very important implications on our strategies for promoting science education!

  • http://hasandiwan.info Hasan

    : A decade ago, your mobile phone was a brick, and all you could do with it was make calls (if you were lucky!).

    A decade ago, my mobile could (and routinely did) purchase coke from vending machines, pay for parking tickets and text to anywhere on Earth. I wasn’t in the United States though, which is the point of my comment. The list is very US-centric. I’m sure our Japanese mates are laughing at your list as well.

  • http://www.dash7.org Pat

    The data deluge is unlikely to be driven by high bandwidth sensors, rather by many billions of low bandwidth sensors that, in the aggregate, requires lots of bandwidth. Most sensor transactions are and will continue to be but a few bytes of data each.

  • Rangeen

    Where would have you gotten the fast computers and high bandwidth connectivity if electrical engineers and communication engineers would not have worked their asses off. The list has been made from just one point of view. Its as shame that you are unable to see the bigger picture. No discipline is small or big. Its the mix of everything that creates the impact. Alas you are too rude to understand this.

  • Ram

    “Teenage gamers are beating the pants off of Ph.D. biochemists – there’s such a thing as too much education.”

    Pure hyperbole. Or gross simplification. In the example cited, the team that created the environment where video gamer apply their visual analysis and orientation skills to protein structure analysis was lead by two two PhDs. It is false to draw the conclusion there is “such a thing as too much education” based on this example. It is more accurate to say that deep knowledge, education and creativity enabled Dr. Baker to have the insight that it may be possible to harness the abilities of population of people with a set of skills different from that of the usual protein research scientist. And enabled Dr Popović to translate the all the complexities of modeling protein structures into a scientifically accurate – and fun – “game” that enabled those gamers to contribute meaningfully, in a manner not possible by the brute application of rules and computation power. WIthout the PhDs setting the stage, these teenage gamers would likely be contributing nothing of value to the advancement of science.

    That being said, it is a very very cool tool, more so if it actually influences some young teens to pursue the study of science.

  • than

    Rangeen: The list is fucking called Seven COMPUTER-SCIENCE game changers….

    It’s about CS. Go make your own list.

  • ChrisFizik

    with computer science in the title here I thought this list was going to be way more technical or concept/theory based. I get the impact / influencer / Exponentials R Us idea…..but this could have been a bit more specific rather than a ‘Technological advances of the decade’ list….

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  • Harv

    Great Post!

    I’m currently working on a project designed to make high school students more aware of the roles that IT in general and CS in particular play as societal agents of change. Lists like this help highlight those changes and make my job a little easier.

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