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April 23, 2013: People of ACM: Moshe Y. Vardi

Today's Topic: People of ACM: Moshe Y. Vardi

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Moshe Y. Vardi is the George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering and Director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice University.

The Editor–in–Chief of the Communications of the ACM, Vardi is a recipient of the ACM's SIGACT Goedel Prize, Kanellakis Award, and SIGMOD Codd Award. He has also received the Blaise Pascal Medal, the IEEE Computer Society Goode Award, and the EATCS Distinguished Achievements Award, and is a co-recipient of three IBM Outstanding Innovation Awards.

He is a Fellow of ACM, the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the IEEE. He is a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Science, the European Academy of Science, and Academia Europea.

Vardi's research interests include database systems, computational–complexity theory, multi-agent systems, and design specification and verification. He received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1981.

What is the status of the P vs. NP problem since you commented to the New York Times on an alleged proof of this Millennium problem in 2010?

The proof claimed by Vinay Deolalikar was discredited. The P vs. NP problem withstood another challenge and remained wide open. It is important to note, however, that while the P vs. NP mystery is a central problem in theoretical computer science, it is quite possible that a resolution of the problem may have limited practical impact. Computational complexity theory is a beautiful theory that has yielded deep insights over the last 50 years, as well as posed fundamental, tantalizing problems, such as the P vs. NP problem. But an important role of theory is to shed light on practice, and there we have large gaps. We need a richer and broader complexity theory, a theory that would explain both the difficulty and the easiness of problems like Boolean satisfiability.

In light of the accelerating trend toward automation, how valid are the conclusions of the ACM Job Migration Task Force report on Globalization and Offshoring of Software that was published in 2006?

The main finding of the 2006 report was that globalization of, and offshoring within, the software industry will continue and, in fact, increase. This increase will be fueled by information technology itself as well as government action and economic factors, and it will result in more global competition in both lower-end software skills and higher-end endeavors such as research.

Nevertheless, data and economic theory suggest that despite offshoring, career opportunities in IT will remain strong in the countries where they have been strong in the past even as they grow in the countries that are targets of offshoring. These conclusions continue to be valid. While in early 2004, ACM members were expressing concerns about the future of computing as a viable field of study and work, the past decade has shown that computing continues to be a highly promising field of study and work.

At the same time, there is no doubt that offshoring has had a devastating effect on some industries, such as manufacturing in the US. Automation is having a similar effect on white-collar occupations. The Financial Times just reported that the US has lost almost 2 million clerical jobs since 2007 as new technologies replace office workers; those jobs — including bookkeepers, bank tellers, file clerks, cashiers — still make up 16% of the US workforce. These changes are quite rapid, and they exert significant pressures on the middle class.

How do you see your role as Editor–in–Chief of Communications of the ACM in shaping the computing field over the next decade?

As the flagship publication of ACM, Communications is recognized as the most trusted and knowledgeable source of industry information for today's computing professional. Each monthly issue brings its readership of over 100,000 ACM members in–depth coverage of emerging areas of computer science, new trends in information technology, and practical applications. The magazine is also a platform to present and debate various technology implications, public policies, engineering challenges, and market trends. As our field continues to expand its impact on and significance to society, the centrality of Communications as the premier publication in computing continues to grow. My role as Editor–in–Chief is to ensure that Communications continues to be the most indispensable computing publication.

What advice would you give to budding technologists who are considering careers in computing in this burgeoning new era in data analysis?

The explosion of social media, mobile devices, and sensors means that we now have access to mountains of data, enabling us to quantify many aspects of society, the environment, and even ourselves. This is bound to have significant implications on business, health, public policy, and the like. Data science is now a hot occupation! Some promise a revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think. There are undoubtedly great technical and occupational opportunities in "big data," but we must remember that human beings are not fully quantifiable. Big data will explain a lot, but it will not explain everything.