UK computer scientists identify future IT challenges

A group of British computer scientists have proposed a number of "grand challenges" for IT that they hope will drive forward research, similar to the way the human genome project drove life sciences research through the 1990s. Ambitious goals include harnessing the power of quantum physics, building systems that can't go wrong and simulating living creatures in every detail.

A grand challenge is a goal recognized one or two decades in advance, achievement of which represents a major milestone in the advance of knowledge or technology, according to a report describing seven grand challenges to inspire and direct IT research, released last week by the British Computer Society (BCS).

Some of the challenges identified by the academics are of commercial interest to the computer industry, most notably the development of dependable systems, and of systems that model or behave like living organisms.

To achieve the goal of building dependable computer systems, the scientists suggest building a verifying compiler, a tool that proves automatically that a program is correct before allowing it to run -- something first written about in the 1950s.

Other themes include:

-- Architecture of brain and mind: Once seen as a matter for philosophical debate, explaining the connection between the brain (as computing machinery) and the mind (as a virtual software machine) is increasingly becoming a scientific problem of interest in the development of information processing systems;

-- Memories for life: As we all accumulate personal digital memories such as e-mail and photos, it will become necessary to manage the information gathered over a human lifetime. The challenge is to allow people to gain maximum benefit from these auxiliary memories, while maintaining their privacy;

-- In vivo - in silico: Through the human genome project, IT has already brought life sciences forward by leaps and bounds, but the next step is to make possible the computer simulation of entire living organisms, allowing scientists to examine a plant, animal or colony of cells in virtual reality, from the cellular scale on upwards, and at different speeds from freeze-frame to faster than life;

-- Science for global ubiquitous computing: Many of us already carry several computing devices (cell phone, laptop, organizer) that communicate with one another and with others further afield, but such communications sometimes fail, as software interacts in unexpected ways. The goal of this challenge is to develop a scientific basis for the design and engineering of a global, ubiquitous computing infrastructure so that the results of interactions between devices are entirely predictable -- or, simply put, that they work as we want them to;

-- Scalable ubiquitous computing systems: Not only do we want our devices to interact predictably and reliably, we also want them to interact with every other conceivable device -- but the complexity of many systems grows much faster than the number of nodes in the system. Computing engineers need scalable design principles: developing and applying them is the goal of this challenge;

-- Journeys in nonclassical computation: Classically, computation is viewed mathematically in terms of algorithms, but there are other ways to look at it. These include rethinking the rigid classification schemes computers use and turning to others based on family resemblance or on metaphor; taking advantage of the behavior of materials at the molecular or subatomic scale to perform calculations in different ways (nanotechnology, quantum computing); using statistical models to compute how sure we can be that the answer lies in a particular range, rather than trying to calculate its exact value; and finally, seeking inspiration from biological systems to develop properties such as auto-immune or evolving hardware.

The search for inspiration began in 2002, as an initiative of the U.K. Computing Research Committee, prompted in part by an early project of the U.S. Computing Research Association. An academic conference followed, in March 2004, culminating in the publication of the report, "Grand Challenges in Computing Research."

The seven challenges are presented in seven chapters of the report, each one describing the ultimate goal, the kinds of research needed to reach that goal over a 15-year period, and the disciplines that would need to be involved. The suggestions -- quite detailed for the early years but vaguer and more conjectural as they look further ahead -- are intended to provoke discussion of the long-term aspirations for computing research.

The Grand Challenges report can be found on the BCS Web site at http://www.bcs.org/BCS/Awards/Events/GrandChallenges/conferencereports

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