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Fantasy Computer Science Research Lab

by Philip Greenspun in March 2003

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New graduate students in computer science often have a difficult time choosing among research projects and may never develop a broad view of the field nor think about the relative significance of efforts in various directions. When new graduate students ask me for advice I tell them to start by pretending that they are the lab director for computer science at a brand-new research university and to come up with a plan for how they'd populate their lab with projects. This is sort of like the fantasy baseball leagues that are popular with kids, hence the page title. In preparing a fantasy research lab plan, a student will need to familiarize him or herself with a broad range of problems and the current state of the art in solutions. This ought to give the student more perspective in planning a career.

Students aren't sure what this should look like and therefore I've prepared a sample fantasy computer science research lab agenda below.

Labus Novus, a.k.a. Philip's Fantasy Computer Lab

Research at Labus Novus is shaped around applications that we're trying to build. Computer Science is an engineering discipline and therefore we make sincere and serious efforts to ensure that our work will meet human needs. We pick applications that are sufficiently beyond the current state of the art that we can populate our laboratory with a mix of medium-term, long-term, and blue sky (50+-year) projects.

Video-conferenced Assistant

Americans make expensive employees. Productivity is measured as economic output per dollar of labor input. In the absence of technological advances, the only way to improve labor productivity is to move the job to a low-wage country. Pairing every American office worker with an assistant in a low-wage English-speaking country (or a low-wage part of the US) would be an excellent way of boosting productivity without exporting jobs, assuming that an effective coordination system can be constructed.

The Labus Novus coordination system will comprise the following components:

Current state-of-the-art video conferencing systems require 6 Mbits of point-to-point bandwidth. Thus the requirement of extremely high quality video conferencing implies the need for research in video analysis and compression, network protocols and routing, and semiconductors and optics for very bright images.

Outlook-on-steroids might sound straightforward but doing the job right can be as challenging as all of Artificial Intelligence. We are building support for a computer-mediated assistant rather than attempting to build a fully automated personal cognitive assistant. This does not reduce the difficulty of achieving a complete solution but it does increase the utility of an incomplete solution.

A desire to give the assistant the ability to manipulate physical objects half a world away (telepresence) justifies research in broad areas of robotic actuators and sensors.

Funding Possibilities: Phone companies are logical sponsors for this research. Telcos built a tremendous amount of network capacity in the 1990s but then neglected to offer any services besides voice communication, thus resulting in falling prices and bankruptcies. Only about 10 percent of the fiber installed through the U.S. is actually being used. Continuously active high quality video conferences have the potential to consume all of currently unused bandwidth in the networks.

Note that the system could be used domestically, yoking together a worker in an expensive crowded place such as New York City with an assistant in a low-wage uncrowded place such as Iowa.

Personal Coach

Wandering down to the self-help section of bookstore one discovers a world of unmet human goals. A lot of these goals are tough to reach because we lack willpower. Olympic athletes also lack willpower at times, yet they get to the Olympics and we're still fat. Why? Maybe because they have a coach and we don't. You might argue that society would be better off if only half of us worked and lived and the other half devoted themselves to coaching but it is unlikely that 50 percent of our citizens would want to give up all of their aspirations. Thus Labus Novus will build a network-resident computer-based personal coach.

Our coach needs to be able to keep track of our goals and what we've accomplished toward those goals. For example, if our goal is losing weight the coach needs to know our most recent weight and about any food intake or exercise. The recency requirement means that we need to be able to communicate with our coach regardless of where we are, by telephone, by handheld computer, by desktop computer, or entirely passively (computer notices that we've stepped on our home scale and records the weight).

Ensuring coach availability implies research on ubiquitous wireless Internet connectivity. Making a coach that isn't too cumbersome requires a conversational speech interface, thus implying research at the very edge of current speech systems. Building a coach that is unobtrusive will require cameras mounted in homes and work places and machine vision so that the coach can figure out what you're doing (no sense interrupting you if you're in a conversation but if you're alone and reaching for the cookie jar it might be time to admonish). A world full of cameras requires research in computer and network security so that only your coach has access to your private life. The coach needs to be smart enough to learn something of your habits and thus implies research in machine learning.

If we consider the domain of health and weight coaching it is useful to build wearable low-power hospital-grade instrumentation for all aspects of the human body, thus driving research into miniature electronics and sensors. Anything that can be measured should be measured and recorded, automatically and without user intervention. At the same time we can interface computer graphics and games to exercise equipment, to motivate the coachees, thus opening the door to all of the graphics research that goes into video games (but this time aimed at making people less fat rather than more).

Funding Possibilities: the military spends a tremendous amount of money on training and physical conditioning; they ought to be willing to invest in a technology that would help each soldier be all that he (or she) can be.

Weather Forecasting

It is tough to know whether or not one's ideas in high-performance computing are right but it is easy to tell whether or not it is raining outside. Thus Labus Novus chooses to push the state of the art in parallel processing, scientific computing, and compilers by trying to predict the weather.

Better Avionics

People seem to be happy with computers that sometimes crash but unhappy with airplanes that sometimes crash. Thus we focus our research in software specification, proving programs correct, operating systems, and constructing fault tolerant hardware on the application of avionics.

Labus Novus will build its own operating system from the ground up. Academicians keep saying that safe high-level languages such as Haskell, Lisp/Scheme, ML, etc. are more reliable and result in higher programmer productivity than unsafe low-level languages such as C. However in practice nearly all computer science research is done on top of standard old-style operating systems such as Unix and Windows. If high-level languages are so great, it ought to be possible for a university or a consortium of universities to build something better and more reliable than Unix in short order.

Simulated flight is safer and more practical in the frigid Northeast than actual flight, especially for uncertificated students. Thus our goal of better avionics implies a heavy workload for the graphics researchers in our lab.

Throughout an airplane are opportunities for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), starting with the gyros used to sense airplane attitude, velocity, and acceleration.

An airplane is a acoustically noisy environment. Designing active noise-cancelling systems for airplanes can take a researcher into a wide range of computational acoustics, microelectronics, and real-time control problems.

Avionics require high-reliability high-availability databases of terrain information, instrument flight approach procedures, airspace restrictions, and airport information. This information is constantly changing and it ideally would be updated from intermittent radio contact with the Federal Aviation Administration's extensive transmitter network, thus entailing research on distributed database management.

Pilots are challenged with a flood of constantly changing information, thus opening the door to a lot of user interface and human-computer interaction research.

Funding Possibilities: the Air Force.

Meatware-based Code-breaking

Modern codes are very difficult to break with silicon-based computers. A biological computer offers the possibility of dumping a lot of goop into a beaker, each cell of which is effectively following one branch of the tree of possible solutions, and coming back a day later to see if one of those cells happened upon the answer.


Labus Novus as sketched has people working on the following areas: This is more or less the full spectrum of activities going on at the top computer science labs and yet the mission and value of the Labus Novus can be clearly explained to a layperson in two minutes. What's more the progress of the lab can be measured easily by combining intermediate solutions into test applications and seeing if they work well.

Smaller Projects

Here are some things that I'd toss in because I like them. Some are near-term and straightforward and would make good projects for master's students.
Software Support for Photographers
Commercial tools such as Adobe PhotoShop address the needs of graphic artists fitting a single photo into a spot on a printed page. Labus Novus will build a system that directly supports photographers' aesthetic goals. First and foremost is assisting with the challenge of mapping the real world's very high contrast into the narrow range of contrast that can be displayed on a monitor or printed on paper. Second we would like to give photographers aesthetic and stylistic controls rather than options such as "Gaussian blur". Third we want to allow the processing of photos in a group, e.g., "let's see whether my 85 vacation snapshots from Greece will look better in black and white." Fourth we want to support the presentation of photos on the Web and to mobile devices.
Telephone Solicitor Interlocutor
To a master's student looking to do something with speech, I'd say "build a system that will occupy telephone solicitors." The challenge for the computer is to keep the phone solicitor under the impression that he or she has reached a human being for as long as possible. The beauty of this system is that if installed in a wealthy area there would be a near-endless stream of calls on which to test the quality of the result and that, if a high quality system were widely installed on PCs nationwide, it would put the phone solicitors out of business (because they'd be spending so much time and money talking to computers programmed to keep them on the line indefinitely).

Companion: National multi-school contest for the best system.

This is the end of the sample fantasy lab writeup.

The Playoffs

One of the things that players of fantasy sports enjoy is competition, i.e., the ability for a computer to simulate Fantasy Team A playing Fantasy Team B. At first glance it would seem that Fantasy Computer Science Research Lab is not amenable to competition, thus depriving students of the chance to excel and win. Yet many schools have business plan competitions, judged by human experts. MIT's is called the "50K" and includes a $50,000 cash prize. If a university can have a contest for short-term business ideas why can't it run a contest for long-term research ideas? In fact we could have a nationwide contest for first- and second-year computer science grad students (only about 1000 graduate each year with PhDs so there aren't an overwhelming number of these folks). Each student would be limited to 4 pages. Judging would be done by people from funding agencies such as NSF and DARPA or funders of university research from industry.

The grand prize? One year of funding, a post-doc to help with the research, and a travel budget so that the student could go to conferences and tell people about what was accomplished.

An alternative: Reality Computer Science Research Lab

For those who prefer to deal in brutal truths than in fantasy, the best place to start planning a lab is probably If the generals don't want to fund it, you probably aren't going to be able to do it. The other major government sponsor of computer science research is and they are fairly explicit about what they want as well.
Text and photographs copyright 1990-2003 Philip Greenspun.

Reader's Comments

I think the idea of a clearly explainable goal, or focus, of the lab is critical. I the idea that all the technical projects can fit under one umbrella that even a five year old could understand.

-- Jacob Jans, May 14, 2003
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