Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On outreach to applied communities

There's an argument playing out on cstheory (yes, we need a better name) on whether we should encourage or discourage questions like "how can I model X phenomenon theoretically", or "Are applied questions off-topic"

While Scott Aaronson posted an eloquent defense of why we should always entertain such questions, the general tone of the responses has been negative. The main fear has been a 'slippery slope'  - that if we allow one modelling question, then the site would be overrun by modelling questions.

I think this sentiment is particularly interesting in the context of David Johnson's post requesting examples where approximation algorithms were deployed usefully in practice (and that he couldn't come up with many good examples)

The truth is that outreach to more applied communities is not about taking your algorithms hammer and beating their heuristic over the head with it. As I've said before, you have to have a DRAMATIC improvement in performance before people will change their standard practices.

It's firstly about communicating a style of asking and answering questions, even if the actual answers are "trivial". A collaboration where you persuade someone to use max flows might not be theoretically very splashy, but it has a huge impact in how people think about algorithms, theory and problem solving.

Doing this first prepares the ground for future collaborations. If you want someone to use your new and snazzy approximation for vertex cover, you have to first convince them that vertex cover makes sense, and before that you have to convince them that even modelling the problem as a graph makes sense. Believe me when I say that the very notion of defining a problem formally before solving it is not how work gets done in many applied areas.

Michael Mitzenmacher makes a similar point in a comment to the above post, where he says:
I do think, however, that sometimes the focus of theorists -- to get the best constant-approximation or to shave log or log log factors off -- obscures rather than highlights a good part of what I see as the real "practical value" of this line of research. Focusing on what algorithmic ideas underlie the approximation, and more implementation and experimentation, would (I think) give more real-world power to this theoretical work.

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