1998 - 1999 CS Annual Report Interdisciplinary
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Cornell in the Information Age

Initial Report of the Task Force on Computing and Information Science
June, 1999

The Information Revolution is transforming society - creating new careers, new industries, new academic disciplines, and the need for new programs of education and research. These changes affect how people work and think, two things that are fundamental to universities. While it is perhaps tempting to dismiss the information revolution as hype or as a passing fad, the evidence runs quite to the contrary. For instance, about one third of economic growth in the U.S. since 1992 has been in computing and information technology. Not only are the founders of new high technology companies often barely in their 20's, new careers are also appearing at traditional companies. For example, this year's ranking of the 500 best and worst jobs lists Web Site Designer as the top job in terms of pay, flexibility, and satisfaction. This is a position that did not even exist five years ago, and that requires a combination of skills not easily found in today's educational programs. The Internet and the Web are perhaps the most visible aspects of this change, but it is pervasive, touching nearly every field and discipline, from computational techniques in the physical and biological sciences to new interactive media in the arts. This revolution has already brought fundamental social change; however, we do not yet understand the impact of this change, nor do we know how much more is yet to come.

Being an informed citizen in the information age requires knowledge of computing systems, global communications networks, and interactive information resources. The requisite level of knowledge goes beyond simply being comfortable with computing tools. It requires the ability to apply computational ways of thinking to design, to writing, to experimentation, to artistic expression, and to problem solving - to the very core of human intellectual activity. Just as a higher education requires writing skills that go beyond the mechanics of sentence and paragraph structure, it is also beginning to require computational skills that go beyond the mechanics of programming and software packages. In the information age, our ideas are no longer constrained solely by what is physically realizable, but by what is computationally realizable. For example, an artist is now able to create an artwork that only exists when someone interacts with it - specifying a framework within which each visitor can create a work of art. A chemist is now able to search more effectively for new compounds by modeling them before ever going into the lab. Nearly every discipline is changing, not just because of new tools, but because of new computational ideas and paradigms.

While the information revolution rests on fundamental advances in many fields, the core enabling disciplines are in the computing and information sciences (CIS). It is the embodiment of knowledge and techniques in computer software and protocols that is driving the change. Perhaps the central underlying theoretical concept is that of the "universal computational machine." While this is a theoretical notion, it has had immense practical consequences. Consider the meteoric rise of the World Wide Web, a fundamental change that has happened in just a few years. Such rapid change was only possible because many people already had computers - which are universal computational machines - in their homes and offices. Prior to the Web, people largely used these machines for word processing and calculation. These same computers have now been transformed from typewriters and calculators into global information resources. While we have gotten used to this notion of universality of computational devices, it is worth noting how different it is from physical devices, which are specialized to a particular function rather than being universal (e.g., physical universality would allow your refrigerator to function as a dishwasher).

In the tradition of Ezra Cornell, we believe that Cornell University should become an institution where anyone can bring ideas from Computing and Information Science to bear on their discipline of study. Cornell has a nearly unrivaled combination of depth and breadth upon which to build - with one of the top computer science departments, outstanding research programs in computational science and engineering coordinated by the Theory Center, the new computational Genomics initiative, and pockets of computational expertise across the campus, in engineering, physical science, arts, humanities, and social science. We believe that it is crucial for Cornell to act quickly to capitalize on this strength, so that we are able to attract and retain the best faculty, and provide the best education for students whose interests in computing and electronic information resources are rapidly growing.   

New Home for Computing and Information

We believe that Cornell should create a central home for computing and information research and education, spanning the entire campus. Such a home would serve to bring together experts in computing with researchers and scholars in a variety of disciplines, including but not limited to three interdisciplinary focal areas: Digital Arts and Culture, Human and Social Systems, and Computational Science. Such a home would provide fertile ground for emerging research and scholarly activities. Such a home would further provide a framework for creating new courses, new concentrations, and eventually new majors to better serve the educational needs of our students, who increasingly seek to combine computing with their disciplines of interest.


Given the above consideration of possible structures, we recommend the establishment of a new kind of academic home for computing and information research, scholarship, and teaching at Cornell. We are calling this home the Faculty of Computing and Information (FCI). The mission of the FCI is to create broad-based programs of education and research that span the campus. Given the high student demand and the fast pace of change in this area we believe that there must be a particularly tight coupling of education and research. Thus, a key part of our reasoning is that the FCI have both teaching and research missions. We have chosen the term "faculty" to highlight that while this proposed structure has some attributes of a college, it would also differ from a college in several critical regards. First, the FCI would have an undergraduate teaching role more like that of a department than that of a college, in that it would offer majors and minors in existing colleges. We further envision that the FCI would offer these programs in several if not all colleges at Cornell. Second, the FCI would have a large number of half-time joint appointments with faculty in the current colleges.