Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why Computer Science Interests Me

Today was a special day celebrating computer science as part of the university's 800th anniversary, and I've been working a ton recently so I took the time to go to a few events. I got a great view of the past, present, and future in a strange way. The morning showcased a hydraulic computer built in the late 40's to model the UK economy: The MONIAC, or Philips Hydraulic Computer, which uses water tanks, pumps, and valves to model the flow of money. It was a truly amazing machine, and of 14 built, only one is still in operation, and we got a personal demo from the Cambridge professor who restored it to working order and showed us how it works. It was inspiring mostly for the imagination that went into it, literally built from leftover parts from WWII bombers. This was the past of CS, unlimited opportunities and creativity to assemble something new. Next we saw a demo of quantum computing research in Cambridge, right next door to our lab in the Physics department. The above machine is a 2-qubit machine which had to run at 4K (unfathomably cold) to work, and doesn't work yet. Quantum computing is the (very distant) future of computing, when we may be able to perform computations impossible today in strange sci-fi looking devices like this. Most of our research group remain skeptics though.

Finally, we had a fantastic talk by Bill Thompson, a former computer programmer turned writing called "The 10 Cultures Problem," a tribute to CP Snow's "The 2 cultures problem." The title itself demonstrated the problem: computer scientists can see that 10 is 2 in binary so the titles are the same. Snow feared in the 50's that a divide between engineers and non-engineers would alter society, Thompson is afraid of that with computer scientists today, and I've agreed for years. Too much of life is shaped by computers now-people use them dozens of times a day in ways they don't realize. Without understanding the basics of computer programming, this all seems like magic, and we're headed to a world with some who understand the magic and some who don't.

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