This morning, I'm going to do something perhaps unprecedented for a computing geek, especially one who is a former Microsoft executive. I'm going to speak without technical aids – no PowerPoint, no Prezi, no Google Docs. In response, some of you may feel compelled to use your smartphones to short selected IT stocks, as the NASDAQ may tremble as a result of my intemperance. I offer this as a safe harbor statement.
The late Steve Jobs recruited then Pepsi CEO John Sculley by asking, "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" In retrospect, it was more than just a hyperbolic recruiting question; computing has changed our world. Via "your potential, our passion," it has been "insanely great."
If the Anthropocene defines human global impact on the Earth's geology and ecosystems, then the Information Age defines computing's universal impact on our own interactions. Like the questions of human triggered environmental and climate change, information technology mediated societal change requires sagacious and thoughtful response.
When I was Head of Computer Science at Illinois during the first (1990s) dot.com boom, I somewhat impertinently told the Dean of Engineering that there were only two kinds of departments in the college: computing (computer science and computer engineering) and applications of computing (the remainder of engineering). The Dean was not particularly amused, but time has proven the basic truth of my assertion, even if it did take a decade for Internet pet food companies to finally flourish. (See Web and Service Futures.)
Computational modeling and data analytics, sometimes called the Third and Fourth Paradigm, now complement theory and experiment, and their use has profoundly transformed our approaches to scientific, biomedical and engineering research. Computing has catalyzed equally deep changes to humanities and social sciences scholarship, and it has unleashed new expressivity in digital media. To see this, one need look no further than the rise of computational science and engineering, machine learning and the explosion of digital scientific data, the growth of the digital humanities, and the expansion of digital music, art and sculpture.
Today, computing writ large – informatics – dominates our society, our culture, and our economy in ways that even the most imaginative dreamers of the 1990s would have found astounding. Unlike other human instruments, computing is a universal intellectual amplifier, augmenting human memory, senses, reasoning and actions in both discipline independent and dependent ways. (See Intellectual Amplification via Computing.) As such, it is lexicographically applicable to everything from aardvark monitoring to zyzzyva tracking.
A Tale of Two Futures
IT was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Dickens' introduction is a parable for our time. It is the best of times and (perhaps) also the worst of times in IT. The evolving interplay of enabling technology advances (hardware, software and algorithms) and new and diverse applications has simultaneously bedazzled and bewitched, excited and terrified, transformed and destroyed. It is made the planet a communicating global village, facilitated social revolution, and disintermediated entire industries via accelerated creative destruction. This is both the extraordinary promise and the often feared peril.
We balance the convenience and utility of e-commerce against deep learning, recommender systems and targeted marketing. We value the power of inexpensive global communications and bemoan the 24x7, nearly instantaneous echo chamber that is the Internet. We hail the promise of personalized, precision medicine but fear genetic profiling and the ethical morass that is human germline editing. We prize smart devices and interconnectedness but are apprehensive about privacy loss, identity theft and cyberattacks. We yearn for autonomous vehicles and automated deliveries but fear loss of personal freedom and control. We value robotics and automation but suffer from income stratification and job elimination. Some wait for the singularity and others fear the emergence of strong AI.
Do you want to change the world? Whether technologist, scientist, humanist, or artist, you've come to the right place. The revolution is not only underway, it's accelerating.