Carnegie Mellon University

The death of computer science is greatly exaggerated--again

The death of computer science is greatly exaggerated--again

As computers have grown ubiquitous in life and work, it has become fashionable among some academics to declare that computer science has reached the end of the line - that all of the interesting questions have been answered, all of the important programs encoded. The latest to do so is Neil McBride, principal lecturer in the School of Computing at De Montfort University, Leicester, U.K. In "The Death of Computing," a paper he wrote for the British Computer Society, he bemoans declining enrollments in computer science courses and a drop in computer research funding.

"There is the smell of death in the air," he says in the piece, which provoked hundreds of comments on Slashdot. Commercial software has matured, he contends, and high-level tools have grown so sophisticated that virtually anyone can build sophisticated Web pages, produce computer animations or assemble business systems without knowing much of anything about computer programming.

Whatever he's smelling in the air of Leicester is missing in Pittsburgh, where Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science (SCS) lacks neither students nor interesting research questions. Sure, misconceptions abound. Despite fears that software jobs are all being sent offshore, the fact is that more IT positions exist in the U.S. today than did before the infamous dotcom bust.

But the biggest misconception is that computer programming somehow is synonymous with computer science, rather than simply a skill used by computer scientists. Computer scientists aren't just tweaking operating systems; at Carnegie Mellon, they develop systems that automatically find errors in digital circuits, guide autonomous vehicles hundreds of miles without human intervention and translate speech from one language to another. They are using machine learning techniques to "read" minds by analyzing brain scans, modeling cellular processes to unravel the secrets of cancer and, in a technique known as "human computation," designing Internet games that trick thousands of human players into doing work that computers can't yet perform. Computer science continues to transform discipline after discipline, from cosmology to biochemistry. Computers have become so important that Jeannette Wing, head of the Computer Science Department within SCS, says "computational thinking" has become as important an educational concept as reading, writing and arithmetic.

Computational thinking isn't about computer programming, but about understanding how the power of computers can be brought to bear on problems. Computer scientists know that the use of abstraction can make complex problems manageable and automation can tackle huge databases that are overwhelming to humans. Wing, who this summer will join the National Science Foundation as assistant director for Computer Science & Information Science and Engineering, says every citizen will need to share this understanding if they are to function in a global society where computer science is anything but dead.

Byron Spice