Monday, February 01, 2010

Could the IPad make computer science obsolete ?

OK fine. it's a provocative title. But hear me out.

Most non-cave-dwelling luddites have heard about the new Apple tablet (aka IPad). The simplest (and most misleading) way to describe it is as a gigantic ipod touch, with all the multitouch goodness of the ipod/iphone, as well as the numerous app store apps.

There's a vigorous debate going on over the merits and impact of the IPad, and while it's clear that it's not a work laptop/netbook replacement, it's probably the first internet appliance with some mojo.

The word 'appliance' is chosen deliberately. The IPad essentially behaves like a completely sealed off appliance - you can't hack it or customize it directly, and are only allowed the interface that's provided to you by Apple and the app store (also controlled by Apple). This is viewed (correctly, on many levels) as a feature, and not a bug. After all, most people don't care to know how their large and complicated computers really work, and all they want is a way to check email, surf the web, watch movies, etc etc.

But here's the thing. As long as the computer has been this complicated, hard to manage and yet critically important device, it's been easy to make the case for computer science as an important, lucrative discipline, and one worth getting into. Even in the past few years, with enrollments plummeting (they seem to be recovering now), there's been no argument about the importance of studying computer science (even if it comes across as boring to many).

And yet, how many people enroll in 'toaster science' ? More importantly, how many people are jumping on the chance to become automotive engineers ? As the computer becomes more and more of an appliance that we "just use", the direct connection between the person and the underlying computing engine go away.

Obviously there'll always be a need for computer scientists. Those social networks aren't going to data mine themselves, and someone needs to design an auction for pricing IPad ads. But it's quite conceivable that computer science will shrink dramatically from its current size down to a much smaller discipline that generates the experts working in the backend of the big internet companies (Microsoft, I'm not optimistic about your chances of survival).

This cuts both ways: a smaller discipline with more specialized skills means that we can teach more complex material early on, and are likely to attract only the dedicated few. However, it'll be a "few": which means that for a while, till we reach a new stable equilibrium, there'll be way fewer jobs at lower salaries.

I make this observation with no great pleasure. I'm an academic and my job might disappear within 10 years for other reasons. But along with rejoicing in the mainstreaming of what appears to be fairly slick use of technology, I'm also worried about what it means for our field as a whole.

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