September 30 through 2 October, over 125 alumni and past computer science faculty members, along with spouses, descended on Cornell to attend the Computer Science Department's 50th anniversary symposium. They came from all over the USA, from Europe, and even from India. Many held important positions in academia and industry---the president of a relatively new research university, chairs of computer science departments, and IT industry leaders.
They came to pay tribute to the CS department and its impact on computing, to reminisce, to see how Cornell has changed, and to listen to talks by eminent past alumni and faculty members. There was a talk by the VP of Google for search, a talk on robotics by a Mcarthur Award winner, a talk by a founder of Google Glass, a panel discussion by three Turing Award winners, a panel on the past and future of programming languages, and much much more.
In between, Bill Gates dedicated our Gates Hall; Bill Gates and President Skorton held also an hour-long discussion in Bailey Hall.
The banquet Wednesday evening gave attendees a sense of the history of the department, with two Cornell people involved in starting the department and the first chair giving their perspectives on why CS at Cornell has thrived so well, staying among the top departments in the country for 50 years. Significant milestones were also discussed --starting the undergrad programs, creating the Cornell Faculty for Computing and Information Sciences, starting the IS Department, and winning the opportunity to develop Cornell Tech, Cornell's new graduate program in New York City.
What an exciting three days!
Here's a more detailed recap. Videos of the talks and the Gates Hall dedication ceremony will soon be posted on our website.
Wednesday morning, 1 October, faculty, students, and guests geared up for a full day of presentations and socializing. Edmund Clark, Juris Hartmanis, and John Hopcroft started with a Turing Laureates Panel, followed by alumnus Rohan Murty, who flew in from India to discuss challenges he faced in industrializing IT services.
Meanwhile, back at Gates Hall, Bill Gates got a private early Wed morning tour of our new building, with a chance to chat with faculty and students involved in research ranging from graphics and vision to sustainability, health, and molecular discovery. An artfully timed morning break in the symposium allowed the participants to join the crowds assembling on the portico at the main entrance to Gates Hall for the dedication. Dean Haym Hirsh, President Skorton, Board of Trustees Chair Bob Harris, and Bill Gates offered a few words. The doors to Gates Hall were opened for all to wander about and see the labs, replete with demos and posters showcasing the department's broad research program. Thom Mayne, Pritzker Prize-winning architect and designer of Gates Hall, was also on hand, and he spoke about his design and its realization in the Gates Hall Mentors Lecture Hall.
The first afternoon session of the symposium began with an eye-opening talk by alumnus Marc Levoy on Google Glass. Next, alumnus Cynthia Dwork talked about her work on differential privacy. Cynthia's work illustrates well why CS at Cornell has had such an impact; she was able to provide mathematical foundations for a growing field and then use that mathematics to provide insight. McArthur award winner Daniela Rus then talked about robotics, showing, among other things, a video that answered the question posed to her 25 years ago by John Hopcroft. Yes, John, a robot can pour coffee into a coffee cup, but it isn't pretty!.
Later in the afternoon, alumnus Amit Singhal, VP for search at Google, talked about "The Future of Search," describing also how the foundations of all search engines was the work of the late Gerry Salton, father of Information Retrieval. He then ceded the floor to a Social Networks Panel moderated by Jon Kleinberg: Lars Backstrom, Steven Strogatz, and Duncan Watts. This session showed the extent to which Cornell has shaped what people today experience as the Internet.
At 4:30, Bill Gates and President Skorton held an hour-long discussion in Bailey Hall. Tickets to this event had sold out within 22 minutes, but it was live-streamed, and symposium attendees and those in Gates hall had excellent seats to watch it.
Wednesday night, we filled the Statler ballroom with a banquet and an after-dinner walk down memory lane from those that had brought to life what we know today as Cornell's CS and CIS. David Gries moderated, and he didn't hesitate to display photos and tell stories that were forgotten long ago (and should have remained so). Anil Nerode and Dick Conway talked about how the Department got started, and Juris Hartmanis talked about what it was like to be first Chair. Alan Borodin, the first person to go through our graduate program and get a PhD, reminisced. Bob Constable discussed CS's role in starting the Faculty of Computing and Information Science, Claire Cardie talked about starting the IS Department, and Dan Huttenlocher ended with festivities talking about Cornell Tech.
The Symposium continued on Thursday morning with a Graphics Panel moderated by Don Greenberg and featuring alumni Michael Cohen, Baining Guo, Marc Levoy, and Holly Rushmeier. This distinguished group, all of whom had studied under Don and then went on to have their own impact on graphics, debated a broad range of issues in graphics. Alumni Lorenzo Alvisi and Michael Reiter then discussed Distributed Systems, with Ken Birman moderating.
After a short break, former faculty member Thomas Henzinger talked about his "startup": the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria. Next, Alex Aiken, Robert Harper, and Stephanie Weirich engaged in a spirited debate about programming languages on a panel led by Bob Constable. The symposium ended with alumnus Scott Aaronson giving an inspiring and accessible talk about the potential and limitations of quantum computing.
Exhausted? the best is yet to come! While this symposium highlighted the impact that CS at Cornell has had in the past 50 years, the next 50 years of computing at Cornell promise to be just as exciting.
Watch for photos in the coming weeks!