Beki Grinter

People, People, People

In computer science, crafts and craftiness, discipline, HCI on January 4, 2011 at 4:13 pm

At both his interview and on the occasion of his arrival, our new Dean gave a talk, and he made the comment that the future of computing is algorithms, algorithms, algorithms. On the second occasion, it happened to coincide with a conversation I’d had earlier in the day (this was a while back). Earlier, I had heard someone propose an argument: What if HCI was the centre of computing, and other disciplines within CS were sub-specialities? To be crass you might say that the future of computing is people, people, people… This caused me to reflect on some recent events.

  1. I am part of a multi-institution grant proposal focused on building network architectures that would support the rest of the world getting online.
  2. Someone asked me about how best to represent where/how a program was running on parallel processors. How much and then how should you communicate to programmers about the parallelism of their program?
  3. I had just listened to a senior HCI researcher give a talk about how Robin Milner’s research was the foundation for his latest HCI/Ubicomp project.

All this happened in the same week. I am struck that I can and do have exposure to a variety of aspects of Computer Science as an HCI researcher. There are some problems with the people, people, people argument. One that strikes me is that it’s easy to get into a situation where you’re arguing that the human experience is central to being human. That’s a statement of the obvious, too high level to be substantive. The second one is that the people, people, people argument was made in jest, so even its proponent doesn’t believe it. That’s also a compelling reason.

But, these reflections borne from a remark did confirm to me that HCI has a place in Computer Science. First, I am still struck by the framing of the problems that Computers are intended to solve. Frequently, those problems begin with a human, even if the solution focuses solely on the machine. I still think there’s a spectrum there, that if a problem is motivated by a human, then at the interface of that machine solution, there’s potential for a human-centered computing problem to lurk. It’s not that there aren’t machine related problems, but just that I think that much of the motivation for Computing includes people and when it does it creates a significant latent potential for human-centered Computing research. Second, and I can imagine that this one might cause more disagreement, but I’ll put it out there anyway. I wonder whether the mechanisms by which HCI constructs legitimate scientific problems aids its ability to connect to other parts of the discipline. My understanding of HCI is that it’s a discipline of understanding how to design technologies to improve the human experience. What we design, whether it be an interface, a system, something networked, some hardware is built, is open to us, it’s driven by the methods and requirements that we demonstrate, somehow, a change in the human experience. I think that gives us quite a lot of latitude in terms of the technologies that we might use, and engage with, to construct our outcomes. This strikes me as different from parts of the discipline that are committed to particular solutions, whether it be a novel architecture, operating system optimization, etc. (Although clearly, we can’t participate in making a contribution to those parts of the discipline without the collaboration of those
who understand the challenges presented in making a machine contribution). One of the reasons I enjoyed the talk about the role of Milner’s bi-graphs in Ubicomp was because it was a partnership between my colleague and Milner.

Another way of saying this is that it places an emphasis on problem discovery as much as on problem solution. How the problem is solved is determined by what the problem discovered actually turns out to be. And I can’t help feeling that that is qualitatively different from other parts of the Computer Science discipline. In partnership with other Computer Scientists now seems like an exciting time to work on hard, interesting problems with a human-facing component.

  1. Beki – Is there a typo here?
    “How the problem is solved is determined by what the problem discovered it.” Couldn’t parse this sentence… but I might just be being thick.

  2. It may be a late comment on the article but this blog post just reminds me about a lot of arguments by Peter Wegner on algorithms vs interactions. A lot of arguments from this ( paper just fits right in the context.

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