Rick Rashid: Bring the romance back to science and engineering

Rick Rashid: Bring the romance back to science and engineering

Summary: Rick Rashid, head of research at Microsoft, was at the Future in Review conference talking about the precipitous drop in students majoring in science and engineering. He attributes the drop to misperceptions that engineering disciplines are not cool and that technology creates more problems than it solves.

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rashid.jpgRick Rashid, head of research at Microsoft, was at the Future in Review conference talking about the precipitous drop in students majoring in science and engineering. He attributes the drop to misperceptions that engineering disciplines are not cool and that technology creates more problems than it solves. "We need to get the message out to kids that one of the ways to solve the world's problems and make better future is through engineering, science and computer science. We need to bring the romance back into the field," Rashid said. Nerds are cool...

On a different note, he predicted that, within the next five years, the field of software development would be revolutionized by mathematical modeling that can prove properties of very large bodies of code.  He said the Windows team is hiring  PhD. mathematical modelers to test code, hoping to replace the dance of software programmers coding and testers trying to show how dumb the programmers are. 

He also said that we are at the threshold of "human scale storage." All of the relevant information about a person generated in a lifetime can be carried around everywhere they go.  A terabyte of disk costs $600, Rashid said, and it could store every conversation you have in lifetime or you could take a picture every minute of life and keep it on terabyte disk. 

Microsoft researchers are also focusing on datamining. An answer program takes questions and then looks on the Web for articles that might have the answer and statistically mines them to get a more accurate answer. "You can ask it some crazy questions and get some interesting answers. During a demo I asked 'What is the meaning of life' and it give series of possible answers," Rashid said. "One of the answers was 'questions.' " That's a rather profound statement for a computer.

Related to datamining and statistical analysis, Rashid said that doing statistical analysis on data without revealing private data is a significant mathematical problem. For example, he said that 83 percent of Americans could be uniquely identified with just three data points-- birth date, sex and zip code.   

Topic: Software Development

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6 comments
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  • Mathematical Proofs

    There are 2 pieces of coding that stop mathematical proofs, they are Pointers and Array Indicies. These objects are akin to metadata - data about data, which is impossible to make into a proof.

    When I was in college 20 years ago, their was a claim that any program could be written with only 3 data structures - stacks, queues, and sets. If you DID write a program like that, you could use math and "prove" your program.
    Roger Ramjet
  • Must be something in the Redmond air

    I don't want to record every conversation and action in my life. I do not believe that many other people find that idea desireable.

    So why should Microsoft think this is worth their attention?

    From the article:
    A terabyte of disk costs $600, Rashid said, and it could store every conversation you have in lifetime or you could take a picture every minute of life and keep it on terabyte disk.


    I remember the description of Bill Gates's dream house. Given all the interaction with mechanical "minds", I think I would rather live in a haunted house. By comparison, ghosts are reassuringly human.
    Anton Philidor
  • Have they heard of Kurt Godel?

    Godel proved that no formal system can be both complete and consistent. Every formal system has propositions that are not provable but true.

    It seems to me they can't succeed with mathematical modeling.
    ron_cleaver@...
  • There have to be jobs

    Sure, romance is nice, but it's a good paying job that entices a student to spend 60K and four years in college. In the current economic climate in America, there aren't enough engineering jobs to employ the trained engineers that we already have. Even Microsoft is loth to hire American engineers when there are so much cheap talent available in India.
    Today, a bachelor degree in computer science and some training will qualify you to be a bank teller, or a medical forms clerk. It's sad, but the country is headed in the wrong direction.
    WiredGuy
    • Will there be a job when you graduate?

      You are so correct. At my last job a coworker was trying to talk his high school-aged stepson out of going into software engineering because he was convinced that there wouldn't be any jobs for him when he graduated college. How many other kids are getting the same talk? No wonder the execs are claiming that there are not enough programmers and engineers. All of the workers that they put on unemployment in exchange for foreign contractors are telling their kids that there is no future in those fields.
      bsvee
      • Perhaps an engineering/CompSci degree is seen as too narrow...

        ...and therefore too risky. I'm sure we've heard stories of people who originally had some other kind of job in another discipline who then made technology/software development part of their job description. Perhaps that's where companies are finding some of their "engineering talent", people who are self-taught and have learned enough about the technology to do something useful with it, as opposed to taking 4 years of college just focused on the technical discipline.

        Nevertheless it's been interesting to hear the news recently from people with experiences "out in the trenches". I've talked to a few of my friends who have found that the job market for software developers has improved significantly over what it was just last year. That doesn't mean that it's gotten super easy to find programming work, but it's gotten easi-ER. When I've talked about this in online forums I still get replies from some folks who think I'm in denial or something, even after I get done telling them about real world situations that are positive, that I've heard from real people. Even though signs of improvement are around, there are plenty of people who refuse to believe it. It may take another few years for people like them to get it that it's not all going to India.

        I don't know what Rashid means by "bring the romance back to science and engineering". I don't think those arenas have had much romance in them for a long time, at least among the general public. Probably the last time it occurred was when the Space Shuttle was first launched in the early 80s. There was a lot of fantasy around it. People predicted that someday the Shuttle would take non-astronauts into space for a princely sum. We imagined building a space station, and using it as launching base for manned missions to moons, planets, and asteroids. After seeing the Shuttle blow up a couple times I think people have thought twice about that idea. I think another thing that's killing the enthusiasm in regards to space/engineering is ever since the Apollo program, we've been sending robots into space to explore other worlds, not humans. It's just not as exciting to get somewhere and all you have to look at is still photographs of rocks and landscapes. Geologists might find that fascinating, but that wouldn't excite me to become an engineer.

        Perhaps the closest thing to "excitement" in science today revolves around String Theory, but it's so esoteric and so theoretical at this point that it's difficult for non-scientists to get excited about it. It sounds more like science fiction at this point than something that is grounded in reality.

        People in certain technical disciplines have reason to be skeptical about a technical degree. I had a friend in college in the early 90s who got his bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering. He was very into it. He knew the principles of flight, thrust, aerodynamics, space orbits, etc. He went on to become a computer programmer because he knew right out of the chute that it was far easier to get a programming job developing business applications, or running batch jobs, than it was to get a job that used his degree. The same went for a former co-worker of mine. He got his EE degree the same time I got my CS degree. He became a software developer because when he graduated in the early 90s a lot of the entry level EE jobs were being shipped overseas. It was easier to get a programming job. He's still a software/systems developer to this day, even though he was out of work for 10 months seeking such a position. Perhaps even so it's still easier than trying to find a EE position. I dunno.
        Mark Miller