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Changing the world through technology

Celebrating the Center for Research on Computation and Society’s first decade

James Mickens, associate professor of computer science at SEAS, summarizes the ideas that were discussed during his group's breakout session on "Paying for Web Services Without Spending User Privacy." (Photo by Adam Zewe.)

In the fast-paced world of computing, 10 years can seem like an eternity. Just one decade ago, the number of broadband connections officially surpassed the number of dial-up Internet connections; the first YouTube video was posted; and Harvard’s Center for Research on Computation and Society (CRCS) was launched to advance computer science research that serves the public interest.

To celebrate the center’s 10-year anniversary, more than 100 computer scientists gathered at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) on Sept. 25 to examine “Societal Impact through Computing Research.” The symposium provided a forum for computing experts from across the country to discuss hot topics at the intersection of computer science and health care, privacy, security, and government.

In welcoming remarks, Francis J. Doyle III, John A. Paulson Dean and John A. and Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences, highlighted the important work of CRCS researchers over the past decade on topics including security and privacy, technology and accessibility, automated and reproducible data analysis, healthcare IT, and economic fair division.

“This center really typifies what we do, not only here at SEAS, but across Harvard. Our work is deeply interdisciplinary, boundaryless, and addresses big, compelling problems,” he said.

Some of the most complex problems the U.S. government will face in the years to come will require technological innovations, said keynote speaker Edward Felton, who serves in the White House as deputy U.S. chief technology officer. While the past 10 years have been marked by dramatic advances, Felten emphasized that, in the next decade, technologists will need to move beyond systems operations and development, and take a seat at the table alongside policymakers. Technologists must take responsibility for the systems they build and understand how those systems impact people, he said.

“We’ve now reached the point where the technology community is realizing the power it has to shape the world,” he said.

Felten’s remarks opened a program that featured presentations from a number of leaders in academia, law, government, and business who discussed how computing has and will continue to shape their industries. Speakers emphasized how technology has implications for nearly every aspect of society.

Presenters included: Christopher Yoo, computer science A.B. ’86, director of the Center for Technology, Innovation, and Competition and John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer and Information Science at University of Pennsylvania Law School, Ben Adida, a former CRCS postdoctoral fellow and lead engineer at Clever, Ariel Procaccia, a former CRCS postdoctoral fellow and assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, Krzysztof Gajos, associate professor of computer science at SEAS, and James Waldo, Harvard’s chief technology officer and Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Computer Science.

In addition to the technical sessions, symposium attendees delved deeper into hot topics during a series of breakout sessions. Small groups engaged in discussions on issues such as computational fair division, challenges of the sharing economy, human computing, and self-driving cars, and then shared key points or ideas for potential research projects.

“The symposium showed Harvard at its finest—engaging the broader community in a dialog about critical social issues,” said CRCS director Margo Seltzer, Herschel Smith Professor of Computer Science. “Attendees left the event energized with much to think about. The challenge before us now is to transform that energy and enthusiasm into action.”

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