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Dear Colleagues in Computer Science and Engineering:

We are asking you to join us in asking the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council to withdraw for revision its report entitled ``Computing the Future: A Broader Agenda for Computer Science and Engineering'', because we consider it misleading and even harmful as an agenda for future research. Our objections include its defining computer science in terms of a narrow set of applied objectives, and its implication that the tone of computer science is to be set by government agencies, university administrators and industrialists and that computer scientists are just the ``soldiers on the ground''.

There is much useful information in the report, but the preface and the Executive Summary characterize computer science in a way that no other science would accept. Chapter 2, ``Looking to the Future of CS&E'', and Chapter 3, ``A Core CS&E Research Agenda for the Future'' should also not be accepted by computer scientists. The Report merges computer science and computer engineering at the cost of abolishing computer science and seriously narrowing computer engineering.

Besides individual scientists, we hope that some computer science departments will collectively join in requesting the report's withdrawal.

Our campaign for the report's withdrawal is being conducted entirely by electronic mail, and we will be grateful to anyone who forwards this message to others who might be concerned. Email to will be counted as signing the petition, not as necessarily agreeing to everything in this message. In fact, the sponsors of this message are committed to the petition and not necessarily to every detail of the message. We haven't taken the time to hash out every detail. So ``sign'' if you endorse the petition sent as a separate message.

This message contains the following parts:

  1. The introduction preceding this table of contents.
  2. The reasons why the report should be withdrawn.
  3. Some relevant email addresses, how to get the full Report
  4. The names of the sponsors of this request

Juris Hartmanis, the chairman of the committee that wrote the report, urges you to read the whole report before deciding. We remind you of the availability of the Executive Summary.


1. What we most object to is exemplified by table es.1 of the executive summary and the note following it.

TABLE ES.1 Importance of Core Subfields of CS&E to Selected Applications


NOTE: The core subfields listed above constitute a future research agenda for CS&E. As significantly, they are important to, and can derive inspiration and challenging problems from, these (selected application domains. The core subfields correspond to areas in which major qualitative and quantitative changes of scale are expected. These areas are processor capabilities and multiple-processor systems, available bandwidth and connectivity for data communications and networking, program size and complexity, management of large volumes of data of diverse types and from diverse sources, and the number of people using computers and networks. Understanding and managing these changes of scale will pose many fundamental problems in CS&E, and using these changes of scale properly will result in more powerful computer systems that will have profound effects on all areas of human endeavor.

[End of excerpt from Executive Summary. The bold face is ours.]

This simply doesn't do justice to computer science as a branch of science. Many, many areas of basic research are omitted, e.g., artificial intelligence and theoretical computer science. On page 22 of the body of the report is a quite conventional taxonomy of computer science taken from a paper by Peter Denning. There the subfields are listed as

This is not great but is recognizable. However, the Executive Summary does not refer to this classification.

2. Our second objection is exemplified by the list on page viii of addressees of the report.

Given the increasing pervasiveness of computer-related technologies in all aspects of society, the committee believes that several key groups will benefit from an assessment of the state of academic CS&E:

Each of these groups has a different perspective on the intellectual, fiscal, institutional, and cultural influences on the field, and the committee devoted considerable effort to forging a consensus on what should be done in the face of the different intellectual traditions that characterize various subfields of CS&E and of different views on the nature of the problems that the field faces.

The metaphor ``troops on the ground'' expresses an attitude toward computer scientists. The Report sees the content of computer science as mainly determined by Federal policy makers, university administrators and industry. We ``troops on the ground'' are perhaps to be asked for suggestions from time to time. No report on the research agenda of mathematics or physics would tolerate university administrators ``setting the intellectual tone'' of the field. It wouldn't be imagined that university administrators had anything to do with it. The report is likely to encourage a regrettable bossiness in otherwise perfectly reasonable deans.

One could argue that this is just an unfortunate wording that could readily be fixed, howvever it fits well with the idea that computer science has no independent existence but is determined by the problems of the owners of computers.

3. Another dominant attitude of the report is expressed on page 3 by

Assumptions of the 1940s and 1950s regarding the positive social utility of basic research (i.e., research without foreseeable application) are being questioned increasingly by the federal government, and justifications for research may well in the future require concrete demonstrations of positive benefit to the nation.
Indeed such tendencies exist, but in the week the report came out, the President of the United States was in Texas drumming up support for the Superconducting Super-collider, the most expensive device for pure research ever to be built. The report is based on a pre-emptive surrender to anti-science tendencies that are only slightly worse now than they have ever been.


These observations aren't arguments as to why the report should be withdrawn but rather thoughts on how we got into this mess and what is needed to develop ideas about what computer science is and how it can be advanced.

Computer scientists have always had practical arguments as to why our research should be supported. This is unlike physics, where for several centuries, the main justification had to be that it improved mankind's understanding of the world. Thus none of the arguments for or against Galileo were concerned with whether his ideas would help the renaissance papacy in its wars. It has always been easy to couch proposals for support of computer science in practical terms. Nevertheless, computer science does have its fundamental problems and subfields. It would have been well had the committee tried to identify them; certainly many of its members have the necessary qualifications.

Here is a try at identifying some of the problems that give computer science its structure. We can consider both history and current problems. It is just a sample, and we think the existing committee could do a better job than this of identifying research goals if they weren't diverted from thinking about science. Anyway such a broad committee is needed if the facilities and people requirements for achieving these goals are to be comprehensively treated.

1. Consider the history of regular expressions. They were invented by the mathematical logician Stephen Kleene, and their first appearance was in a RAND Corporation report about 1950. In those days RAND supported much basic research. The motivation was to determine what languages could be recognized by finite automata. Kleene presumably already knew that languages requiring that parentheses match could not be recognized by finite automata, so natural language recognition could not have been his objective. The main application of regular expressions today is in string searching, completely unanticipated by Kleene. They were certainly not invented as part of one of the areas in the Report's ``Core Research Agenda.'' If the Report's recommendations were in force today, a proposal to study what languages were recognizable by finite automata would lose out in competition with proposals that more clearly provided ``concrete demonstrations of positive benefit to the nation.''

2. McCarthy's work on Lisp and his work on time-sharing were both motivated as means of carrying out his research on artificial intelligence.

3. The relation between the facts that determine what an object is and algorithms that compute it has been studied in mathematical logic and in computer science (both in AI and in mathematical theory of computation). It is a permanent core research area of computer science. It can probably be related to all the core research areas listed in the Report, but it will lose out in competition to much narrower topics more immediately related to any of them.

4. What can be known about the world by a system with given opportunities to observe and interact. This is a key area of artificial intelligence--the formalization of common sense.

5. How to express knowledge of the world in databases.

6. What are lower bounds on the number of operations needed to perform various numerical and symbolic computations, e.g. invert a matrix or store and retrieve information in data structures?

7. What are the important data structures and the operations on them.

8. What are the routine parts of a proof of a mathematical fact, e.g. the correspondence of a computer program to its specifications, that can be done routinely by computer, and what are the creative parts that require either human attention or substantial AI.

9. What are the properties of various search strategies.

10. What aspects of algorithms are parallel and what are essentially serial? This has a certain relation to the Report's multi-processors, and undoubtedly someone could make a case for studying parallelism in general on the grounds that it would help design or use multiprocessors. One could also make a case for studying thermodynamics on the grounds that it is relevant to automobile engines. However, the committees that evaluate a physics proposal will consider its importance for thermodynamics and not directly for automobile engines.

11. Modularity. What are the opportunities for modularity in descriptions of the behavior of very complex systems? This affects both the analysis of existing systems and the synthesis of new ones.



To add your name to the signatories of the petition, send email to All mail to that address will be counted automatically as supporting the petition.

Comments to the sponsors of the petition should be sent to and will be distributed. Comments directly to the Computer Science and Technology Board should go to its Chairman William Wulf,

Copies of the full report can be obtained from

National Academies Press
2101 Constitution Ave.
Washington, D.C. 20148

phone : 1-800-624-6242

The price is $24.95 per copy + $3.00 shipping per order, and people from California and Maryland have to pay sales tax. Quantity discounts exist. Call them about it if you care. Maybe you won't want it for your permanent library, but if we are successful in getting it withdrawn, maybe it will become a rare book.

[The Latex source of this document is available by anonymous ftp from under the name /pub/jmc/whysign.tex. The other two documents are /pub/jmc/petition.tex for the petition itself and /pub/jmc/preface.tex for the preface and executive summary of the NRC report.]

As of 1992 September 4, the sponsors of this request are John Backus, Bob Boyer,, Barbara Grosz, Don Knuth, (no email address) John McCarthy,, Marvin Minsky, minsky@MEDIA-LAB.MEDIA.MIT.EDU, Jack Minker,, and Nils Nilsson, John McCarthy may be telephoned at 415 723-4430.

Note: The previously distributed information that Edsger W. Dijkstra was a sponsor was incorrect.

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John McCarthy
Sat Apr 13 10:35:50 PDT 1996