On the road with Dean Martha E. Pollack

Dean Martha E. Pollack will give a talk on “Computing Outside the Box” on Friday, April 10 at the Indiana University School of Informatic. The title stems from a fall 2008 workshop at the National Science Foundation that discussed the future of computer and information science. The intentionally ambiguous phrase used at the workshop was intended to invoke the need both for innovative ‘outside the box’ thinking in computer and information science, and for computational research that directly addresses problems that go beyond computers (electronic boxes) themselves.

In today’s talk, Dean Pollack will focus on the second issue and discuss the critical importance of investigations of potential uses of information technology.

“Computer scientists have always undertaken ‘use-inspired research,’ but the uses that have been deemed legitimate have often been limited to those that are within the computational box,” she says. “Thus, designing more reliable operating systems or developing faster methods for database access have been seen as mainstream computer science, while research motivated by other needs may be viewed as ‘merely an application.’

“In contrast, information scientists have focused on the socio-technical dimensions of IT, with a particularly heavy emphasis on social issues. Increasingly, though, there are calls to change the perspectives of both groups, in ways that blur the distinctions between them and that recognize the value of combining rigorous technical insights with deep social analyses.”

The dean will point out the challenges inherent in such a change in perspective, while arguing that it is nonetheless essential if the computer science field is to maintain its relevance. The presentation will include examples of research that aim to develop computational systems that improve the greater good, for instance by assisting people with cognitive or physical impairments, by facilitating sustainable practices, or by increasing social capital.

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