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October 31, 2006

Future of computing

The New York Times has a short piece covering a recent symposium run by the National Academies on the future of computing. And, naturally enough, the intertwining of social networks and technological networks (e.g., YouTube and MySpace) was a prominent topic. Jon Kleinberg represented our community at the symposium. From the article:

But with the rise of the Internet, social networks and technology networks are becoming inextricably linked, so that behavior in social networks can be 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?

Isn't it nice to see your research topics in print in a major news paper? To me, the two exciting things about this area are the sheer number of interesting questions to study, and the potential for their answers to qualitatively improve our lives. (Although, being more of a theoretician than an engineer, I suppose I leave the latter for other people.) For the Web in particular, new ideas like YouTube and del.icio.us have made it possible to study social behavior in ways never before possible. Physicists and computer scientists deserve some credit for recognizing that these sources of data offer a fundamentally new perspective on questions that sociologists have been kicking around for several decades now.

As is true perhaps with any relatively new field, there still a lot of debate and jostling about how to do good science here. But mostly, that just adds to the excitement. There's a lot of opportunity to say important and interesting things about these systems, and, to develop new and useful applications on top of them.

Update Nov 2: In a separate piece, the NYTimes discusses Tim Berners-Lee's efforts to found a "Web science" field that combines aspects of Computer Science with Sociology and Business. Sounds familiar, no? Here's the final thought from the article:

Ben Shneiderman, a professor at the University of Maryland, said Web science was a promising idea. “Computer science is at a turning point, and it has to go beyond algorithms and understand the social dynamics of issues like trust, responsibility, empathy and privacy in this vast networked space,” Professor Shneiderman said. “The technologists and companies that understand those issues will be far more likely to succeed in expanding their markets and enlarging their audiences.”

(Tip to C. Moore)

posted October 31, 2006 05:07 PM in Computer Science | permalink