Monday, October 24, 2005

FOCS Panel Discussion: The Soundbite edition

Shorter Aaronson: Theory needs prophets
Shorter Quantum Pontiff: Theory needs physics
Shorter Vanity of Vanities: Theory needs a merge dance.
Shorter Geomblog: Theory needs metaphors.

I liked Rocco's characterization of Bernard's comments at the panel discussion:
If the broader scientific community comes to use algorithms as a conceptual framework for the problems they are dealing with, we will have done well.
This is an important point: PR is a good thing (whether you publish in Nature or not), and "spreading the word" is also great. But more fundamentally, it is important to spread the idea that when you think about any kind of computational process, you are thinking about an algorithm, and therefore trying to define what it is you are computing will help you tap into the best way of solving the problem. The problem with a lot of the computational conceptualization (phew, there's a tongue twister) that goes on outside of theory is that it is akin to looking at a physical process and trying to come up with your own physics to understand it, rather than invoking (at the very least), Newton's laws of physics.

A legitimate retort to the above comment is that often, theoretical methods fail to address the phenomenon under study. To a degree this is true: theory of computation involves "laws of the limit"; worst-case and asymptotic analyses often fail to detect phenomena that occur when n is not heading off towards infinity. But why it's only true to a degree is because there is a lot of theory (maybe not the sexiest kind) that does push back towards non-asymptotic behaviour, for example in the various explanations of why quicksort works so well inspite of its worst-case O(n2) complexity.

The Quantum Pontiff makes another good point:
they need to attempt to convey their results in a way which, while not totally faithful to the science, gives the reader a reason to believe that they understand what is going on. This, of course, is much hard to do as a computer scientist than as a theoretical physicist because in the former rigor is held in higher esteme than in physics where hand-wavy arguments hold a much greater standing.
It's true; viewing theoretical computer science as a form of mathematics (Avi Wigderson's clarification notwithstanding) gives us the same public persona (at best) as mathematicians. Most mathematicians are viewed by the general public as glorified accountants (and mathematics as "counting"). The effect of this on our ability to proselytize and disseminate is even more noxious. After all, mathematics remains under the thrall of G. H. Hardy's apology, in which
There is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.
How on earth are you supposed to come up with the next Feynman/Hawking/Sagan under such a withering blast of derision ?

Returning to the Quantum Pontiff, he makes another point close to my heart:
CS theory hasn’t, in my opinion, exploited the fact that it is studying a fundamental question: the fundamental limits of computation. This fundamental research direction, to me, is as deep as understanding what the laws of nature are (and if you catch my on some days I might even say that one is deeper than the other.
As Dave Winer might say, 'Bing!'. This is exactly right, and is a point that unfortunately many theoretical computer scientists don't agree with. The evidence in favor of this view of theory would take another post, and ultimately does have a faith-based element to it, but it is hard not to look at quantum computing, information theory, and black hole entropy, and feel that there is something more to computing than computers.
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