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Real advances in Computer Science?

  1. Jan 20, 2017 #1
    I wanted to start this topic to discuss what are real advances in Computer Science (CS) that actually have contributed to the world, both to sciences and academia, as well as to the industries and common people.

    Usually, the discoveries on Physics, Engineering, Chemestry and Biology are more easily reported, while math and CS get a little bit in the shadow (the exception perhaps is AI).

    TL;DR: What do you think are the major contributions the field of CS has brought up? And how much importance is given to those developments?

    P.S.: This post is informative only, I don't mean to light up any bad discussion or war.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 20, 2017 #2
    There's so much overlap in fields. We have computers because of computer scientists and mathematicians, we have fast ones that fit in your pocket because of material scientists and physicists. So I assume you're asking about the purely CS stuff, not things like the work with silicon/transistors behind the computer age. My list of favorite breakthroughs would be:

    1) Shannon's information theory - led to formal notion of information which can be processed and sent on networks.
    2) Turing's computation theory - led to a model of all computation
    3) Chomsky's theory of context free grammars - led to programming languages from which software could be written
    4) Computational complexity theory - led to a deep understanding of the limits of computation
    5) Artificial intelligence theories - many of them, and they are behind most breakthroughs in computer science for decades and will probably shape the world most in decades to come.

    I'm sure there's stuff that should be there that isn't, (like something having to do with the Internet) but these are some of the big ones.
  4. Jan 20, 2017 #3


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    The automation of mundane work previously done by office human computers is probably the biggest followed by the damage even a small programming error wreak on an unsuspecting community.
  5. Jan 21, 2017 #4
    Oh yes. I meant to ask about pure CS stuff. As in, what did CS alone bring of advancements to the our world?
    To be clear, I'm a CS major trying to understand what my field has brought up. I'm pretty unsure with what in fact have we contributed, and the level of importance of this contribution.

    I think that what you said is pretty important. However, lets take Turing's and Chomsky's theories for example. They are useful inside of CS, no doubt, but were they really necessary to evolve the field? Couldn't we still be creating algorithms and languages without this knowledge?
    For example, it would be hard to build a computer without the knowledge about electromagnetism. But I don't see the same happening here. I don't think the theoretical knowledge helped that much to evolve things outside CS. I may be wrong though.

    If I remember correctly, it was a programming error that led one of NASA's rocket to explode (it was due to precision error, or something like that).

    Well, yes, automation is very important. But it wasn't exaclty CS who created it. The computers eventually made it happen, but it could have happened even if all programs had to be created by engineers using FORTRAN 77. Although it would be much harder.

    Thanks for the answers by the way :)
  6. Jan 21, 2017 #5


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    Yes, I think so. The contribution described by @jedishrfu is much more significant, IMO.

    Another advance that was very significant was the realization by John Von Neumann that computer memory could be used to hold both program code and the data it worked on.
    What you're remembering wasn't a NASA rocket -- it was an Ariane 5 rocket (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariane_5). There was a space shuttle (Challenger) that exploded on launch in 1986, killing all of the astronauts inside it, but that was due to an o-ring, not a programming error.
  7. Jan 21, 2017 #6
    Yes, Ariane 5 rocket. Although (risking going off-topic) I've read that it was due to the number of bits to represent numbers and the concersion from one another. A failure that could be fixed through software.
    (A link, but I don't know how trustable it is: https://www.google.com.br/url?sa=t&...HRTt2I78Uy0Nowwrw&sig2=jeLlxDEay9dQTpRk7cfbyw).

    Back to the topic:
    Okay, but as far as I'm noticing the research in computer science has very few impact on other areas, and most of the important discoveries are from its beginning, rather than recent.

    This makes me wonder: Is CS a topic being studied only for the sake of CS? To keep the professors doing something?
  8. Jan 21, 2017 #7


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    No so! Much of CS is related purely to CS partly because it can be used on many problems and partly because its built on other CS ideas.
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2017
  9. Jan 21, 2017 #8


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    CS undoubtedly has great impact through its advancements to our everyday life. Thing is that its advancements have been and are used at large by other sciences and there are many cases in which without these impacts, there would be no advancements to other sciences at all but many times this remains unnoticed by most people. I'm not talking about technology and generally implementations. These are more or less the extensions (with all the necessary modifications and adaptations that an implementation demands) and also, undoubtedly in my opinion, they have their own great impact.

    I'll second Mark about Von Neumann model, as this had a very deep impact for every computing machine out there. Also, the list that Fooality gave, is things with really great impact.

    You can't tell for sure what we could have created without these because this just didn't happen. As we say in theory of algorithms, the eternal question is "Can we do better?" but unless we find this better we can't really tell.

    Also, the advancements in CS are subject to advancements in other sciences (i.e the other way around), with math being the most profound in my opinion. Great algorithms and algorithmic techniques go hand in hand and alternate between CS and math. Because CS is really all about algorithms, the impact is lying at a low level but it is very fundamental and essential to many aspects of everyday life.

    As for now, new advancements are achieved frequently, but they go unnoticed for many people until some new product hits the market. And then technology prevails but there would be no technology without CS. But to be fair, technology plays also a major role as it is the vehicle (regarding experiments and products) that helps CS advancing.
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2017
  10. Jan 21, 2017 #9


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    another major achievement was the binary floating point format model, without it we'd still be doing either integer or fixed decimal arithmetic.

    Conrad Zuse was the first to implement it in his mechanical digital computers.

  11. Jan 21, 2017 #10


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    In am not a CS guy, but this looks interesting.

    If you are interested in things in non-CS fields affected by CS advances I would point to the use of CS (however maybe these would not be strictly CS in the way you intend) in the analysis of many things in modern biology: imaging, genome analysis, and predicting protein structure. These are all very data intensive and would not be possible otherwise.

    Chomsky from linguistics? I was unaware of his impact on CS.
  12. Jan 23, 2017 #11
    I see. So basically the CS ideas and developments are covered, and the developments of those who use these ideas are the ones that really get to the general public.

    But then, not that I want to be too specific, but what advances in CS do you think helped in say, Physics, or Engineering?

    Oh, but math also gets a bit in the shadow when talking about public news of science and development. In Physics or Biology people still have a clue of whats going on. But math and CS are so left out. I think they dont have the appealing the others have. Even in new products it is unsure for most people who brought the advancements (at least those outside the STEM), sometimes the credit even goes to the company.

    Speaking of algorithms, and other areas a like. Do you think that the coming of Quantum Computers can bring a revolution to CS? I mean, most knowledge we have so far would have to be redesigned to feet quantum ideas. Some areas could even disapear (those studying heuristics to solve NP - Hard problems). In this way, we could say that CS is very bounded to the current technology, and its knowledge does not neccessarily survives throughout time?

    I've heard they using it in Biology, and some ideas of optimization too, specially in bioinformatics. I'll take a look.

    Some big data and data intensive problems could be tackled by statiscs or math I guess.

    Yes, Chomsky from linguistics. He did brought some knowledge about grammars to CS, allowing the development of things like compilers.

    And here comes another point. Most big discoveries are from people originally outside of CS. Chomsky is an example, Turing another. Even dijkstra was from math field. As well as Von Neumann, Knuth and others.
    This usually gets me thinking if CS majors have the skill to develop big things in the field, or if people from other areas are better.
  13. Jan 23, 2017 #12


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    Back in the days when Dijkstra, Von Neumann, and Knuth were doing their work, computer science wasn't a field of study. Even as late as the 1970s, I don't believe that many universities had departments that specialized in so-called computer science. Several of the CS-related classes I took back then were taught by Math professors. So it's not a question that people from other areas are better; there simply weren't a lot of people back then whose specialty was computer science.
  14. Jan 23, 2017 #13


    Staff: Mentor

    EE professors handled the computer engineering part and often the boolean logic topics.

    Are you writing a paper on this topic? or is this just an interest?
  15. Jan 23, 2017 #14
    I mean, it comes down to questions about whether math truth is discovered or created. I think its discovered, so if you didn't have Turing, who's model describes all computation you'd basically have someone else discover the same model, and the same mathematical truths like the halting problem etc. I think they are universal, without Turing they would be discovered under some other name. With Chomsky's grammars, its hard to say that with as much certainty... Is there another mathematical formulation of languages which a computer can quickly parse? Possibly. But Chomsky's theory is what they had, so all languages specify CFGs, and so all programming languages rely on this idea of Chomsky, and so all programs from that run on a computer pretty much are based on them.

    The main thing is there are underlying mathematical truths about computing you can't get around. If a function is uncomputable by a universal Turing machine, its not computable by any other computer you can build. Eventually, whatever approach was taken, you'd run into these laws of computer science which is what they field is all about.
  16. Jan 24, 2017 #15
    The cost effective speed and memory increases are huge. I can now run codes on my notebook that used to require a super computer.

    Look at the link in my sig. There is no real need for FFTs any more in many data analysis applications. The "slow" Fourier transform is now fast enough, and it can be more accurate than a "fast" Fourier transform for some applications in data analysis.

    Not to mention that element based modeling can handle things on much smaller scales of spatial and time grids than in the past.
  17. Jan 24, 2017 #16
    Okay, it makes sense that those important guys were from outside CS because of the time. However, today I don't know listen a lot about new break through findings in CS - or about great names of the field.

    I'm a CS major. I'm about to start my MSc degree also in CS, but doubt has strike me in the matter: is there hope in doing something meaningful in CS? And then I got even further to: What are the real advances in CS that impacted the world?.
    I always liked science and everything about it. I would really love to study physics, but during my choice of degree I ended up with CS. But now I wondered what could I achieve with that. I stsrted this thread to help not only me, but all those that perhaps are in doubt, or maybe are curious about the field.

    I too think that math discovers, rather than create. Its science to me as well. Although not all areas of CS are "mathy".

    I can see that perhaps the impact is greater than I was thinking. And you did help me realize that.

    But, returning to a previous question of mine. What will happen when quantum computing comes? I think it will drastically change everything in CS. And most knowledge built so far can be given as useless then. I see it as hard times for CS, because quantum computing seems a much more physics field, not to mention a superior type of computing that perhaps wont need any speedups, or fancy algorithms to solve quickly. We don't even know if Turing's theory will hold completely. What do you think of this advancement?
  18. Jan 24, 2017 #17


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    Quantum computing will initially be tacked on to our existing computer infrastructure much like how the floating coprocessors were added to microprocessors years ago to augment them with more powerful computing capability and to eliminate the software way of doing floating math.

    In other words, we would interact with traditional machines who will utilize quantum computing components and report back what the results were.

    Here's one such example:


    and here's another one:


    Lastly, here's a list of others to check out:


    So to answer your question, we will still need CS people but they will now be superpositions of real programmers entangled with other programmers much like programming teams today.
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2017
  19. Jan 24, 2017 #18
    Hey Sagant, I think you're asking the right questions. My major was in CS too, and as a guy who loves to ask the deep questions, I've found myself more and more of an armchair physics fan, though I didn't study it, especially trying to grasp quantum computers. If you ask me what sort of ideas will really define the future of computer science, my guess would be something like Constructor theory, proposed by David Deutsch and Chiara Marletto at Oxford.
    My understanding is this theory allows a unified narrative through which physical processes can be viewed as computations/information processes, and vice versa, in a way which includes quantum computation (in which Deutsch is a pioneer), and apparently addresses some other issues in physics. As computing becomes more physical with robotics and questions of what architectures best serve AI algorithms, it becomes more and more about physical processes, computers integrating seamlessly with the physical world, and more about a theories in which unfolding physical processes and computations can be seen through the same lens. We don't fully have such a theory now, thus computer science and physics are different fields. But if you're feeling drawn to mixing in some other science studies like physics into your CS degree, my advice is DO IT! The CS info is good, for instance classical computation is a subset of what quantum computers can do so it will still be valid in the future, but I honestly think you'll be better prepared for what's to come with a good dose of physics mixed in.
  20. Jan 24, 2017 #19


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    From what I've read Traveling Salesman Problems (esp those that don't obey triangle inequality) are expected to be intractable whether done on a classical von Neumann architecture or a quantum computer.

    Despite the lack of proof for ##P \neq NP## people are virtually certain this is a the case on a classic computer. People don't have quite the same degree of confidence for quantum computers, but again from what I've read TSP still is expected to be intractable.

    The immediate uses for quantum computers seem to be quantum physics and integer factorization. Though in a manner like money flowing into graphics cards over the past couple decades for video games (but now gpu's are shockingly useful in inference problems -- especially deep learning), I suspect new and somewhat surprisingly potent uses will come up over time.
  21. Jan 25, 2017 #20
    First of all, thanks for pointing out the links, they make a very good material on the subject :)
    As for the quoted text: yes, okay, I don't expect the "CS guy programming a bunch of codes" to go out so soon, with or without QC. However, to be honest, I didn't major in CS to become a coder, as they say. What I am afraid of (in fact I didn't make it clear) is what would be the future in CS research. For example, I work (today) with theoretical computer science, tackling hard optimization problems and data analysis, which all need efficient algorithms, usually heuristics, to solve in reasonable time.

    Some people say QC could solve these problems quickly. Some say only a part would solvable by QC. And a smaller group even says that it won't make much different to those problems, only the classical ones (factorization, grover's search and quantum simulation).

    I'd like to share a article I've seen some time ago. It is a bit outdated (2008), but if what it says is true, than my concern would be completely false, and in fact QC would not be able to solve all the problems that efficiently, only a partially. Link: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/The_Limits_of_Quantum_Computers.pdf

    Nice to see some fellows from the CS field :)
    I haven't heard about constructor theory, thanks for pointing it out, I'll be reading about it.
    Yeah, I would love to add some Physics (and more math too!) to my degree and knowledge. However I would have to learn it by myself (which is a bit hard and prone to errors), or start over a whole new degree (yup, 4 years), because here in my country we don't have things like major/minor, it is a "fixed" degree program, with not much freedom to take other classes outside yours (all I could get was Physics I - Mechanics, though it was pretty cool). An horrible way to do, I know :(

    Yes, I've learned it this way too. However, as some people point it out, this fact is not exactly proven, it is believed to be so, but it could also be that QC would solve all NP-Complete / NP-Hard problems and make the world a easier one. On the other hand, even though it is theoretical intractable, as in, it would have no polynomial time algorithm to solve it, perhaps the QC would be so insanely fast that even large instances of the TSP (say, 10^9 nodes) could solved quickly with the simpler algorithms by the QC - again, this is not known, I'm just making an assumption.

    I think one of the doubts I have is due to the strength of CS to survive major technological advances like this. It is such a new field (as you guys said), that sometimes I'm not certain how much can CS stand on its own when it comes to this. It is not like math or physics that have been around for ages and ages, and every new discovery opens more questions than answers. I'm not sure it works this way in CS, though I'm too only initiating my academic career, and I may be saying some very wrong stuff here.

    (Have we gone off-topic?)
  22. Jan 25, 2017 #21

    Stephen Tashi

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    Do we count the development of various programming languages as part of Computer Science ? There can be be controversies over the pros and cons of the various programming languages, but generally speaking there has been progress in developing new languages tailored to specific technologies - e.g. database query languages, languages for creating web pages, etc. We could also count the development of encryption schemes as part of Computer Science.
  23. Jan 25, 2017 #22


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    I would say programming languages illustrate CS concepts of the day.

    As an example, OO came into being with smalltalk. Folks liked the concept of message passing and so C programmers started using message structs to carry state which led to Objective C and then to C++.

    The usual language development path is a result of someone supremely unhappy with the present ones and went on to design a better alternative. Like Awk to Perl to Python to Ruby or from Java to Groovy and to Scala or javascript to coffeescript and to Elm as examples.
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2017
  24. Jan 26, 2017 #23
    I think programming languages could be said to be developments of CS. In fact, there is a huge number of languages nowadays, all sorts of tastes. On the "applied" point of view, this is good, because allows people to develop in different environments with different proposes that a certain language allows. On the "theoretical" side, it doesn't really make much different, since most used languages are all Turing Complete, hence equivalent.

    I wanted to put something here. Today I've watched a video about AI and how it can impact future society and jobs. The name is "Humans need not apply", available in youtube here

    Do you think that this CS advancement in AI (though it will take some time yet) can actually happen? I mean, even if the impact was not as huge as the video predicts, it can still be enourmous enough to kick a lot of people out of their jobs. This is especially bad when considering development countries (I'm from one) where a great majority of people have very mechanical and easily computerized jobs.
  25. Jan 26, 2017 #24


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    That's an awesome youtube video. Thanks for sharing it here!
  26. Jan 26, 2017 #25


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    In my opinion, only the design and concepts is part of CS. Now, this may seem obvious at first glance, but what I say is that fierce market competition is what drives mostly the implementations of programming languages - especially nowadays, so big software companies is the driving force from some point on. The concepts regarding programming paradigms are more or less already established, as are the building blocks of each programming language (syntax, grammar etc.). What has created the explosive rate of new languages hitting the market, is that are tied to specific platforms (regarding software and hardware) and this is not anymore a CS thing. Of course, the positive side of this, is feedback given back to CS.

    The video is about what is happening now, in terms of technological advancements. While it is like that - regarding technology itself, it is not mentioned if all that's implied, could actually happen. Besides technology - I'll use the term "technology" throughout, as the form of the various implementations of designs/advancements in AI and in any science for that matter, that gradually replaces us humans, there is the concept of economy as well as the sum of individual economies i.e. the concept of global economy.

    Supposing that things will go as described, there would be tens (finally hundreds or more) millions of people getting unemployed. The first question that comes to mind, is where will the companies producing any kind of goods or services or both, sell them? It maybe that everything will be automated, but we can't be exiled from the planet. So, with most people being poor, who's gonna buy all these? I cannot really imagine a big company buying its own goods or sell one company to another. All technological advancements and their products have the human factor - as a consumer, included. Now, does this make any kind of sense? I'm afraid not. Where all this could lead in my opinion, is for most people to get back to traditional jobs and so it is rather technology that will gradually vanish, if we follow this scenario.

    A second question is how individual countries will develop, under the conditions described in the video. A very important part is science and technology but there is also the human factor intimately related. But the goal of science and technology is grow economy and develop a country. So, at least as I see it, this is also a contradiction.

    Finally, I can't see a way that most people will stand living with only the absolute basics - if at all, in a world governed by automated machines.

    On the other extreme, vanishing of technology, is not something that can really happen. All the great things that science has given us through technology, is something that no one in my opinion wants to abandon. So, there will be some "middle point" - talking in a broad sense, that we can live using technology.

    So, my point is that there are things beyond technology, that constrain an out-of-limits development and spreading.
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