Don Knuth on progress in computer science

This blog led me to a premiere: My first letter written with TeX. Guess whom I sent this letter? Don Knuth, inventor of TeX and author of The Art of Computer Programming. His answer looks like this:

Don Knuths letter

He corrected my use of the quotes and then goes on to reply to my question “what are the most important problems in computer science?“, inspired by a talk of Richard Hamming.

Don KnuthI admire Dick Hamming enormously, but I disagree that his first question is “good”. Everybody knows famous, unsolved, “big” problems, which tend to be thought important because of their fame. And perhaps those problems are indeed important … although when they are finally resolved (like the question of deciding equivalence of deterministic languages) I find to my surprise that I don’t get very excited by the result, rather by the method used to get there

I firmly believe that computer science advances by thousands of people solving small problems, which go together and create a massive edifice. Every year that goes by, hardly anything is done that appears to be a milestone worthy of mass attention; yet after five or ten years pass, the whole field has changed significantly. So I’m no fan of “top ten” problem lists.

Let’s hear it for the people who work on and solve small problems based on their judgement of peer pressure. Like for example Hamming.

I agree that the progress in year seems insignificant, but I don’t want to agree that we can’t see where we’re heading with computer science. This blog is my try to get an overview, to get a form stand on the shoulders of the giants and see a littler further.

Published in: on September 18, 2007 at 9:09 am  Comments (14)  

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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Why should we be able to see where we are heading?

    Also, your quotes above are still wrong. You have double left quotes on both sides of your self-quotation.

  2. I think each individual person has an idea of where they think/hope things are heading, and what they are working for. Who is going to win out is hard to see, though.

  3. The quotes here are converted by wordpress and i don’t think struggling with it is worth my time.

    I’m thinking about Adlemans notion of “ripeness” of problems. Success is often the result of doing the right thing at the right time. Finding out the the right place and the right time is luck or foresight. How significant is foresight?

    Some people have this foresight. For example Steve Jobs or Alan Kay are visionaries and were mostly right.

  4. Dude. He’s still got 4 volumes left to write. Stop distracting him.
    :-)

  5. hi,
    do you mind posting a higher resolution version of that paper, so that it can be read?

    thank you.

  6. Are you intentionally not capitalising the word ‘I’ throughout, or is it just a series of mistakes? (I ask because if there is some movement away from capitalising names then I would like to know about it.)

  7. [...] September 18th, 2007 in Quotes I firmly believe that computer science advances by thousands of people solving small problems, which go together and create a massive edifice. Every year that goes by, hardly anything is done that appears to be a milestone worthy of mass attention; yet after five or ten years pass, the whole field has changed significantly. – Donald Knuth (via) [...]

  8. Its a sort of ‘Programming 2.0′ model that we have now — collaboration is key to accomplishing meaningful goals. Quite a difference from when, say Linus Torvalds wrote a kernel essentially on his own. While programming has never really been considered ‘social’, I think we’re going to see it head in that direction more and more in the upcoming years..

    Comment by Robert H. Goretsky of Hoboken, NJ

  9. I think seeing the future of computing is like seeing the future of the stock market. There is no deteriministic way to predict a large group of people working in a field over the span of more than a year.

    Keep fighting the good fight though.

  10. It’s my german shining through, Andrew. Our “ich” is capitalized like every other word. This is one of the strange things in english and I often forget about it. Fixed it.

  11. progress in using computers is exponential, we can never know what will come up in the next few years!

  12. I like that “Programming 2.0″ type of an idea. The field does seem to be heading in a more social direction. Open source projects, individual published plugins, and lots and lots of APIs, full of mashup possibilities!

    It’s still all slowly incremental though. The whole standards-compliant web movement is achieved one blog design at a time ;)

  13. [...] Don Knuth on progress in computer science This blog led me to a premiere: My first letter written with TeX. Guess whom i sent this letter? Don Knuth, inventor of […] [...]

  14. It’s still all slowly incremental though. The whole standards-compliant web movement is achieved one blog design at a time

    The internet wants to be the Semantic Web!


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