Feeds

Computing needs a Grand Challenge

Sir Tony Hoare lays down the gauntlet

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

High performance access to file storage

Sir Tony Hoare - British computing pioneer and senior scientist at Microsoft Research - believes the computer industry needs a "grand challenge" to inspire it. In the same way that the lunar challenge in the 1960s sparked a decade of collaborative innovation and development in engineering and space technology, or the human genome project united biologists around the globe, so too must computer scientists pull together on such a scale to take their industry to its next major milestone.

Speaking last Tuesday at an open day at Microsoft Research's lab in Cambridge, Hoare told the audience of around 60 journalists and analysts that there are seven such challenges facing researchers today. Significantly, these are not purely computational challenges, but involve a mix of disciplines from biology and psychology, right through to quantum physics. This reflects how much other areas rely on and use IT to support their research, but also the changing nature of computer science itself.

By 2020, Hoare predicts, the world will contain 100 times as many computers as it does now, each with 100 times as much power and memory, all interconnected. And to best understand this world, he says, we should not think of it as containing many discrete computing devices, but as a global ubiquitous computer (GUC).

He argues that in this world, the classical theory of computation, based on Turing's description of a single, localised machine sequentially executing a deterministic program to completion, no longer applies. One of the grand challenges, then, is to re-write the basic foundations of the science, to find a theory of computation that is "more realistic than the Turing model, and can take into account the discoveries of biology, and the promise of the quantum computer".

"Computations carried out in nature, for example in the brain and body of a living organism, are nothing at all like that. They are widely distributed over space and over time; they essentially involve massively parallel operation; they involve continuous interaction with their environment; and they are highly non-deterministic," Hoare says. In this way, the global ubiquitous computer is much more like a living organism than the Turing machine.

Wanted: life models

The links between the computing and biological sciences don't stop there. Perhaps the grandest of the grand challenges for computing are about modelling life, in particular, developing a model of an organism that will make predictions that will be experimentally testable.

To make progress, Hoare suggests the project "will probably concentrate on the same simple organisms that are the subject of widest biological experiments, for example the thale-weed Arabidopsis Thaliana".

But Hoare has grander plans still.

"An ultimate joint challenge for the biological and the computational sciences is the understanding of the mechanisms of the human brain, and its relationship with the human mind," he says.

"A single human brain has about a hundred million million nerve cells...and a computer program that throws light on the mind/brain problem will have to incorporate the deepest insights of biologists, nerve scientists, psychologists, physiologists, linguists, social scientists, and even philosophers. This challenge is one that has inspired Computer Science since its very origins, when Alan Turing himself first proposed the Turing Test as a still unmet challenge for artificial intelligence."

Computational phenomena

The Cambridge facility is one of five facilities run by Microsoft Research, an independent sub-section of the software giant. The other labs are based in China and the US, with the bulk of the research coming out of Redmond. The group's remit is to research pure computer science, rather than to develop products.

Hoare, who was knighted in March 2000 for his services to computer science, joined the lab when he retired from Oxford University. Among his achievements in his career in industry and academia, is the development of the first commercial compiler for the programming language Algol 60.

He argues that the approach to Grand Challenges, in any discipline, is driven primarily by scientific curiosity and idealism and a desire to understand basic phenomena, in this case computational phenomena.

"It is easy to predict that some of the discoveries of research directed towards Grand Challenges - but only the most unexpected ones, and at the most unexpected times - will be the basis of revolutionary improvements in the way that we exploit the power of our future computing devices." ®

That list of Grand Challenges in full.

Related stories

Manchester honours Alan Turing
MS to probe human-computer interface
Personal Computer Science boss loses Oz extradition battle

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
Video games make you NASTY AND VIOLENT
Especially if you are bad at them and keep losing
Elon Musk's LEAKY THRUSTER gas stalls Space Station supply run
Helium seeps from Falcon 9 first stage, delays new legs for NASA robonaut
Solar-powered aircraft unveiled for round-the-world flight
It's going to be a slow and sleepy flight for the pilots
Russian deputy PM: 'We are coming to the Moon FOREVER'
Plans to annex Earth's satellite with permanent base by 2030
LOHAN's Punch and Judy show relaunches Thursday
Weather looking good for second pop at test flights
Discovery time for 200m WONDER MATERIALS shaved from 4 MILLENNIA... to 4 years
Alloy, Alloy: Boffins in speed-classification breakthrough
India's GPS alternative launches second satellite
Closed satnav system due to have all seven birds aloft by 2016
Curiosity finds not-very-Australian-shaped rock on Mars
File under 'messianic pastries' and move on, people
prev story

Whitepapers

Mainstay ROI - Does application security pay?
In this whitepaper learn how you and your enterprise might benefit from better software security.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Mobile application security study
Download this report to see the alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, as well as the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.