In December 2009, the Simons Foundation gathered a group of leading computer scientists to discuss and prioritize the needs of their field. At the top of their list was the founding of a large-scale institute where researchers could exchange ideas on their most advanced and challenging problems. Twenty months later, after a competitive search among many leading universities, the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing opened its doors at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Theoretical computer scientists study computation and information as fundamental concepts, much as physicists study matter and energy,” says Sampath Kannan, professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of the panel that tapped Berkeley. “But most of them are pursuing their research agendas in isolation. Bringing these top people together will lead to reexamination of these hard problems, providing opportunity for breakthroughs.”
In the age of ‘big data,’ in which cloud computing and ubiquitous sensors are generating billions of gigabytes of information every day — more than was generated over entire millennia for most of human history — understanding the fundamental theory of computation matters more than ever.
But according to Richard Karp, the institute’s director, this understanding applies to far more than computers themselves. “There are computational processes to be found in physics, biology, economics — even in human organizations,” he says. Using this “computational lens,” says Karp, scientists collaborating at the institute will push our understanding of the world forward in ways they never could have before, or alone.
The Simons Institute is funded through the year 2022, and will support a series of semester-long programs to bring hundreds of senior scientists, post-docs and early-career researchers together to collaborate on multidisciplinary problems. “Arguably the most exciting programs are those where people from different fields interact,” says Alistair Sinclair, the institute’s associate director.
For example, an evolutionary biology program scheduled for early 2014 will create collaborations between biologists, mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists; another meeting will draw together quantum-computation experts and theoretical physicists. “We’ll have young scientists working alongside top people in these fields,” Sinclair says, “and we hope those interactions will persist beyond these semester-long programs.”
As for the institute’s future goals, Karp intends to keep his outlook broad. “The computing environment is constantly changing, and we’ll have to be proactive about identifying emerging trends,” he says. In May, the Simons Institute hosted a symposium in which computer scientists, mathematicians, physicists, biologists, economists and nanotechnologists discussed the future of computation.
One thing that the institute isn’t likely to do over the next decade, though, is build any supercomputers of its own. “Supercomputers are wonderful for quickly calculating answers to certain questions,” explains Kannan. “But theoretical computer science seeks entirely new methods to answer them orders of magnitude faster. Moreover, the theoretical computer science perspective can raise new questions that lead to insights not accessible by sheer computational power.”