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Looking Beyond the Sciences

The current focus on national competitiveness issues has done much to raise the level of discussion about the ways in which computing expertise is driving innovation in the new combinatorial sciences. Very little, however, is said about how computing can continue to drive new discoveries in the humanities.

In his recent speech about national competitiveness, President Bush pointed to supercomputing and nanotechnology as examples of computing-related innovations that are contributing to advancements across the sciences.

Genetic engineering and biomedical engineering clearly stand as primary examples of the important contribution that computing is making to innovations in science. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any major new scientific or medical breakthrough that did not involve the critical use of computing technology at some phase of the development and testing of new processes, compounds, medications, or equipment.

In a recent article in the Communications of the ACM (April 2006, Vol. 49(4)), however, Argamon and Olsen point to the potential for computing to revolutionize the humanities. In specific, they refer to the ways in which computer scientists can provide critical knowledge that will allow the new generation of knowledge browsers to make more effective use of digital libraries. Computer scientists, they argue, can work with humanities scholars to develop new query interfaces that would represent, not just words, but meanings in context.

Other areas of social research are also being enriched by computing. One of the big topics at the first annual Qualitative Inquiry Conference, for example, was how computer software can be used to support the collection, organization, and analysis of data in qualitative research. These researchers, who are often on the cutting edge of social research, are embracing the tools that will help them discover patterns that provide answers about the most complex issues of our lives, communities, and societies.

To often, when asked about why students should study computing, I find myself drifting into answers about opportunities to make important contributions in the sciences, but Argamon and Oslen have given me an important reminder about the importance of recognizing the potential role of computing across the full spectrum of human existence.

Chris Stephenson
Executive Director

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