In a discussion on the future of computer science at Harvard University, former Microsoft CEO and alumni of Harvard- Steve Ballmer AB ’77, joined Harvard President Drew Faust and Cherry Murray, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), to discuss the topic. Ballmer expressed his excitement about the ability of computer and IT to process huge amounts of data not only to see patterns but to suggest actions and understand human intent.

His emphasis on the potential of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) in being able to shape our own future was evident throughout the discussion.

With Ballmer’s undisclosed donation, Harvard will see a 50 percent expansion in the size of the computer science department, with the ladder- track faculty positions going up from twenty four to thirty six.

In a brief telephone interview with the Harvard magazine on November 12, Ballmer emphasized the importance of strengthening the faculty for “the next era of computing,” in fields such as machine learning and computational theory, which are key to propelling “the next wave of innovation and research.” Expanding the faculty cohort from 24 to 36 would “enable the Harvard computer-science department really to be built for the future” computing era.

Ballmer stated that “CS at Harvard today is small, but excellent. It already punches above its weight. With depth in systems, data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, it is focused on high-impact specialties that are literally changing the world. With this infusion of talent, I believe Harvard will be one of the preeminent, modern CS programs.” He stated that Leadership in computer science is fundamental to Harvard remaining the leading institution in education.

He further added that “CS is the operating system of innovation at Harvard, the basic theory being that CS and CS technology is going to power so much innovation”. Ballmer added that Harvard has a unique opportunity. Whether it’s biology, history, public policy, or medicine, the ability to help people gets more done through CS is an area where Harvard has the resources and the perspective across these disciplines to be a leader.” He pointed out how big data techniques can now be used to find out how civilizations evolved.

David Parkes, Colony professor of CS and SEAS’s stated that an area of particular focus for recruiting new colleagues would encompass artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science—frontiers that he described as holding the potential to transform how people interact with the world. Evolving techniques will enable scientists to engage with and make sense of enormous sets of data, and will help policymakers understand social problems and devise more effective responses.

Harvard’s professional-school breadth strengthens the potential for breakthroughs in medicine, law, and design, among other fields, he said. The department will also seek to grow in fundamental computer-science research, probing the limits of what is possible and what is not; as an analogy, he noted, “A cell is a computer,” processing and sharing information in accord with laws that apply universally.

He stated that Harvard is not only making great technical progress in terms of development algorithms that can behave intelligently but we are also at a point where people are asking deep intelligent questions about their impact on society, workplace and mankind.

Expressing no qualms about the various issues being brought up about scientists forging ahead in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning, Ballmer said that “At the end of the day, will we have to have other innovations that protect people from privacy and security [problems]? Of course we will… I don’t think being afraid of any innovation is a good thing.”

Ballmer punctuated the potential of entrepreneurial innovation at Harvard due to its interdisciplinary learning approach. In a recent interview with the Harvard magazine, Ballmer mentioned the developmental plans in Allston. The given SEAS’s future facilities there, an emerging entrepreneurial presence nearby, and the longer-term planned development of an “enterprise” campus on Harvard-owned property at Allston Landing, he saw a “phenomenal feedback loop” taking shape, where academic research creates ideas that can be brought to market, and entrepreneurs find the trained talent they need to proceed.

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(Image Credit: Will Hart)

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