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March 17, 2003

Purdue looks to the future of computing while celebrating its past

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Perspective on the future of the world of computing will be one of the main attractions of a Purdue University symposium on March 28.

Purdue's Department of Computer Science, the first ever in the United States, will celebrate its 40th anniversary that Friday with an all-day gathering of some of its most successful graduates, many of whom will discuss the role computers will likely play in science, industry and society at large over the coming decades. The day will conclude with a dinner featuring addresses by Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon and Purdue University President Martin C. Jischke.

"Computers will continue to play essential roles in society, and Purdue has graduated experts who are well suited to give perspective on that future," said Jeff Vitter, Frederick L. Hovde Dean of Purdue's School of Science. "This anniversary symposium will be an excellent opportunity for those who seek insights into technology's long-term impact on the local and world economy."

Those insights will likely be as diverse as the individuals who attend – but before the event, some Purdue experts have been willing to offer a preview. Many of their thoughts have centered not only around the benefits of advances in technology, but also the potential difficulties and threats to personal and societal security these advances might bring.

As anyone who has ever performed a Web search knows, one of the most useful functions computers serve is to help sift through huge quantities of information to find what is relevant. Because the information available over the Internet and on private databases is expanding rapidly, one challenge computer experts face is teaching their machines to sift that information more efficiently.

"Computing is now entering its third revolution," said Vitter, who is a computer scientist. "Years ago, computers first helped us mimic the physical world and design better products; then in the 1990s they revolutionized communication and commerce. Now we are discovering that computers could help vastly improve our understanding of the world and cosmos – but in order to do that, they must help us sort through the blizzard of information we possess to distill the essential knowledge."

The scope of that blizzard staggers the imagination. For example, a single second's worth of data from an ongoing experiment can produce enough information to fill the memories of millions of the latest desktop computers. And experiments can run for weeks or longer.

"In order to collect, process and communicate these data, we need an improved cyber-infrastructure," Vitter said. "What this means is, we need advances in everything from computer security to human-computer interaction to networks, because information is becoming increasingly spread out among more and more different locations."

Networks themselves are growing and changing rapidly with advances in wireless technology. While the sort of infrastructure Vitter wants will require large-scale effort on the part of computer researchers, certain networks might simplify communication between the tiny devices many of us carry.

"We're moving toward truly universal networks within a few years," said Tony Hosking, associate professor of computer science in Purdue's School of Science. "Soon your cell phone will talk to your PDA which will talk to your desktop – it will be possible to link everything. And this will enable you to stay in touch with your world more easily. You'll simply create a profile for yourself one time on your computer and your mobile devices will be sent updates on, for example, the latest Yankees' game based on that profile."

Computers will not even be limited to forms we are accustomed to. While your PDA rests in your hand for all the world to see, it is likely that the next generation of mobile computing devices will be wearable on, or even in, the body.

"What we think of as computers will change significantly as they become more pervasive," said Hubert "Buster" Dunsmore, associate professor of computer science. "Wearable and implanted devices could prove attractive for health monitoring, navigation, even entertainment. People might be willing to make devices a part of their body to eliminate the need to carry about a plethora of gadgets."

Of course, such possibilities raise a number of serious social issues. Beyond the potential health hazard that such devices could have if carried on, or in, the body for extended periods, having an electronic device that is connected to a network could mean that a person's activities and movement could be monitored without their consent.

"It's marvelous that we will soon have the ability to plug everyone into fast, dynamic networks that can provide entertainment and convenience," Dunsmore said. "But the capacity of such networks to track what people do will be a serious issue for computer scientists and lawmakers alike. Where are you now? What are you doing? What have you done every minute of the day? Do you really want such information about yourself available on a database?"

Information security, in fact, is such a pervasive issue that Purdue has an entire center dedicated to exploring ways of protecting the world's most sensitive data, much of which is vulnerable to hacking and other cyber-attack once it is stored on a network.

"We are talking not only about private personal information here, but also the private data of major corporations and governments," said Eugene Spafford, director of Purdue's Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS). "Even now we have so many vulnerabilities in networks and too few people trained in how to protect them. We need to redesign those systems to work securely and reliably, which will require both advanced research and education of specialists about what needs to be done. Purdue is ideally situated to do both."

These and other issues will be topics of discussion in the symposium's afternoon sessions from 2-4:45 p.m. in Stewart Center's Fowler Hall. The reception will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Purdue Memorial Union. Dinner will begin at 7:15 p.m. in the South Ballroom, where Jischke will give a few remarks and introduce O'Bannon.

More information is available on the Web.

Purdue's computer science department was the first in the United States, and is now tied with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in producing more information technology graduates than any other institution in the country.

Writer: Chad Boutin, (765) 494-2081, cboutin@purdue.edu

Sources: Jeffrey Vitter, (765) 494-1730, jsv@purdue.edu

Eugene Spafford, (765) 494-7825, spaf@cerias.purdue.edu

Antony Hosking, (765) 494-6001, hosking@cs.purdue.edu

Hubert Dunsmore, (765) 494-1996, dunsmore@cs.purdue.edu

Related Web sites:
Event announcement
Purdue computer science department

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Media can attend the daytime symposium at no cost with advance registration. Contact Mary Jo Bartolacci at (765) 496-3525 or mbartolacci@purdue.edu to register, or visit http://www.cs.purdue.edu/40th for more information.


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