Fred Brooks on Computer Science

Fred Brooks’ acceptance lecture on receiving Allen Newell award (download here courtesy of UNC Department of Computer Science). Here are some highlights:

  • “Computer science” is a misnomer.

I submit that by any reasonable criterion the discipline we call “computer science” is in fact not a science but a synthetic, an engineering, discipline. We are concerned with making things, be they computers, algorithms, or software systems.

Unlike other engineering disciplines, much of our product is intangible: algorithms, programs, software systems. Heinz Zemanek has aptly defined computer science as “the engineering of abstract objects.” Even when we build a computer, the computer scientist designs only the abstract properties—its architecture and implementation. Electrical, mechanical, and refrigeration engineers design the realization.

  • How can a Name Mislead Us?

If our discipline has been misnamed, so what? Surely computer science is a harmless conceit. What’s in a name? Much. Our self-misnaming hastens various unhappy trends.

First, it implies that we accept a perceived pecking order that respects natural scientists highly and engineers less so, and that we seek to appropriate the higher station for ourselves. That is a self-serving gambit, hence dubious. It is also a risky gambit; in the
case of some upstart social “sciences” the name is merely ludicrous and makes the practitioners look foolish. Moreover, the gambit is futile—we shall be respected for our accomplishments, not our titles.

Second, sciences legitimately take the discovery of facts and laws as a proper end in itself. A new fact, a new law is an accomplishment, worthy of publication. If we confuse ourselves with scientists, we come to take the invention (and publication) of endless varieties of computers, algorithms, and languages as a proper end. But in design, in contrast with science, novelty in itself has no merit. If we recognize our artifacts as tools, we test them by their usefulness and their costs, not their novelty.

Third, we tend to forget our users and their real problems, climbing into our ivory towers to dissect tractable abstractions of those problems, abstractions that may have left behind the essence of the real problem.

We talk to each other and write for each other in ever more esoteric vocabularies, until our journals become inaccessible even to our society members, and publication properly commands a higher price from the author in page charges than from the reader in subscription fees. So our writings even in their economics resemble garbage, for which the generator pays the collector. This deadly trend already curses American mathematics; its cold chill can be felt in computer science. We are succumbing to the occupational illness of teachers diagnosed 2000 years ago by Jesus Christ: “You desire praise from one another. [John 5:44]”

Fourth, as we honor the more mathematical, abstract, and “scientific” parts of our subject more, and the practical parts less, we misdirect young and brilliant minds away from a body of challenging and important problems that are our peculiar domain, depriving these problems of the powerful attacks they deserve.

  • Computer scientist as a toolsmith

In contrast with many engineers who make houses, cars, medicines, and clothing for human need and enjoyment, we make things that do not themselves directly satisfy human needs, but which others use in making things that enrich human living. In a word, the computer scientist is a toolsmith—no more, but no less. It is an honorable calling.

If we perceive our role aright, we then see more clearly the proper criterion for success: a toolmaker succeeds as, and only as, the users of his tool succeed with his aid.

  • Scientist vs engineer

The scientist builds in order to study; the engineer studies in order to build.

  • IA > AI

intelligence amplifying systems can, at any given level of available systems technology, beat AI systems. That is, a machine and a mind can beat a mind-imitating machine working by itself.

  • The toolsmith as collaborator

If the computer scientist is a toolsmith, and if our delight is to fashion power tools and amplifiers for minds, we must partner with those who will use our tools, those whose intelligences we hope to amplify.


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