"As we honor the more mathematical, abstract, and scientific' parts of our subject more, and the practical parts less, we misdirect the young and brilliant minds away from a body of challenging and important problems that are our peculiar domain, depriving these problems of the powerful attacks they deserve."
Fabiola Gianotti, Director-General at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, says that only government funding could have made possible the kinds of truly paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries in areas like quantum mechanics that CERN has helped generate. She stresses that this kind of fundamental research has a direct impact on society, and not only in the long term; the cutting-edge technologies that it requires to function are important stimuli for research in other areas as well. For the fruits of that research to really matter, it is vitally important, Gianotti says, to share results and make it accessible across the scientific community. Equally important is science education, relying on open-source hardware and open-source software to train scientists and future scientists at all levels and all ages.
Today, mathematics and computer science often appear as the province of geniuses working at the very edge of human ability and imagination. Even as American high schools struggle to employ qualified math and science teachers, American popular culture has embraced math, science, and computers as a mystic realm of extraordinary intellectual power, even verging on madness. Movies like A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, and Pi all present human intelligence in the esoteric symbolism of long, indecipherable, but visually captivating equations. One has to think of such prosaic activities as paying the mortgage and grocery shopping to be reminded of the quiet and non-revelatory quality of rudimentary arithmetic. Which is not to put such labor down. Adding the price of milk and eggs in one's head is also brain work, and we should never forget the central place of mere calculation in the development of more sophisticated areas of human knowledge.
During which season of the year would a rabbit's fur be thickest? A computer program called Aristo can tell you because it read about bears growing thicker pelts during winter in a fourth-grade study guide, and it knows rabbits are mammals, too. It's studying for New York State's standard science exams.
The following is a special contribution to this blog from Henry Kautz, Chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Rochester. His research interests are in knowledge representation, satisfiability testing, pervasive computing, and assistive technology. He is currently President of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI). If you have comments on this essay, e-mail Henry or add an entry to the bottom of this blog post.