microsoft research faculty summit: william wulf talk


This afternoon's keynote is by William Wulf, of the National Research Council and the National Academy of Engineering. Says he's going to talk about societal issues rather than technical issues.

[While this was geared towards a CS audience, I'd encourage a broader audience to read my notes, below the gives a distressing (to me, at least) view of how distorted an engineering world view can become. I'm off to the conference dinner cruise, so I'm going to post this as-is; I'll clean it up a bit tomorrow.]

Says an important part of their job is "telling [sic] truth to power," which first involves finding out what the truth is. (Clearly these are not social scientists.) They put together a team that studies a topic for an average of 18 months, and produce the equivalent of a phd dissertation, complete with bibliography. They're not interested in people's opinions, he says, they're only interested in "fact." The kicker--they produce one of these reports every day.

Their customers are typically government agencies (mostly federal), although they sometimes undertake a study without being asked.

Most of the questions are aobut the state of knowledge in some specific area of science to inform a public policy decision. So, for example, what would the implications of changing the CAFE standards? Nearly a third of recent research has been related to counterterrorism. They also do a good bit of research on environmental issues--cites a recent report on "the hydrogen economy."

Four things on his "bully pulpit" list:

  • reform in engineering education
  • diversity in the engineering workforce
  • tech literacy in the general public
  • engineering ethics

Refers to Friedman's The World is Flat, which argues that the playing field is becoming more level, and that outsourcing is a manifestation of that fact. (I'd be more interested in seeing references to Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind in this context.) He says Friedman lists ten "flatteners" that have enabled this levleing of the eocnomic playing field. Nine of the ten are either IT or enabled by IT--the only one not related to IT was 9/11. So, Wulf says, it's the people here in this room that created the potential for this flattening of the world. Like Friedman, he sees this change as a good thing--lowering costs for the US and increasing opportunities in countries like India.

"Whether flatness is good for any particular country depends on how that country prepares itself for the rough and tumble of this flat world." Friedman argues that the US has not been preparing itself and its children properly.

Notes that every industry involving information has been transformed fundamentally by IT--it seems likely that this will be true of higher ed, as well. The question is, in what way will higher ed be changed?

(I'm reminded of Pat Cadigan's presentation at an ALA conference some years ago, where she cautioned us about "the danger of predicing the future in a straight line.")

Says that someone (missed who) said he had never seen a process that couldn't be sped up by a factor of two while increasing quality. (Um...pregnancy comes to mind as one counter-example.) Asks "Can we imagine a system that would speed up higher educationby a factor of two while simultaneously increasing quality." (This kind of mechanistic approach to problem solving always frightens me. It's not possible to reduce everything, and particularly not social systems, to an engineering process.)

He argues that despite this increasingly technological society, the majority of the voting public are technologically illiterate, and are not fit to be governing this society. "I worry a lot more aobut the people with liberal arts degrees who are technologically illiterate." He says they're "not equipped to vote." (I'm in the "Microsoft employee video ghetto," so I can't see what the reaction to this statement is in the other room, but I'm appalled by this arrogance--first, the assumption that liberal arts majors are technologically illiterate, and second, the assumption that technological skill is a necessary component for political participation.)

Goes on to ask if we can enable a system that would enable the general public to inform themselves about the nature of a public policy debate, in "a fairly dispassionate, true (his emphasis) way." (Unbelievable. Who gets to decide "truth," I wonder?)

Argues that we're outsourcing technology work not because the people overseas are cheaper, but because they're better. (And what does he base that assessment on?)

Asks why, when innovation is American's strongest capability, we're cutting funding for basic research--across the board. It takes years to go from basic research to implementation. We're emptying the pipeline, and we'll pay a price down the line. (One of the few things he's said that I agree with.)

Cites a statistic that NRC found that the average age for a researcher to receive their first grant as PI (not co-PI, postdoc, etc) is 42. Says that when you fund people that late, you won't get he kind of courageous, ground-breaking research that you need for innovation. (Great. He's now dismissed my undergraduate BA, and my age. I suppose I should be grateful that he hasn't started in on gender.)

Says "We need to carry Bush's message to Congress." Asserts that we are not 'entitled' to research support. Research is a means to an end, and we need to focus on what those ends are.

A reporter asked him today "Will we still have the best universities in the world in 20 years?" He says he doesn't know, but that we're shaping the answer to that question right now.

A question from the audience about the letter from Senator Joe Barton to a Professor Michael Mann, in which Barton challenges Mann's climate change research and demands supporting evidence. I don't know much about this issue, but after skimming some information online here and here, I'm appalled by what seems going on.


Very interesting. As a liberal arts grad and a techie and now an employee at a liberal arts college, I'm a bit offended by his degradation of our knowledge. How did I learn to be a techie? Problem solving skills, research skills. Learned as a liberal arts grad. I run a program in the summer where I teach 6-9 students tech skills. I don't think tech skills are the be-all, end-all of knowledge. Who knows what technologies are coming our way. Learning particular tech skills now won't help. The key is learning how to figure those new technologies out and apply them effectively. And a liberal arts education prepares you for that as well as any education.


After your summation, I had to seek out the WWW presence of the speaker. Quite telling:

"I live in mortal fear that someday they'll catch on to the fact that they are paying me to have all this fun."

The liberal arts people have no fear. They are not being payed that much. And they know that fun is a resource that grows exponentially once it is shared. Yipeee!!!

Sounds rather like an engineering version of Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" mentality (there, only those who served in the armed forces had the vote). He also seems much more focused on re-engineering systems for speed and with a questionable standard of quality when it comes to human systems.

I love your aside about pregnancy!

Bill Wulf was one of the people who was instrumental in establishing the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, the place that's done some of the more cutting edge work at the intersection of computer science and fields like literature, art history, etc. So it's a bit surprising to hear such parochial comments about technology and the liberal arts. He has more of a hands-on interdisciplinary perspective than most.

Yikes! I'm shocked that they are having someone this clueless talk to y'all. As economics major who got an MS in CIS, I can tell you that there is a great deal of similarity between those disciplines.

As to his voting comment, maybe we should apply that to holding office first. :-)

Great post! I love your snarky asides.

Hi, I was there as well at the Microsoft Faculty Summit, and agree with your point of view. One the interesting things about Microsoft is that the Computer Science is very important to them, and degrees in it are important if you are being hired right out of school. Otherwise they don't care. In fact for the first two years at Microsoft the only Computer Science types were sales people.

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