Happy birthday, Sputnik! (Thanks for the Internet)

Fifty years ago, on Oct. 4, 1957, radio-transmitted beeps from the first man-made object to orbit the Earth stunned and frightened the US, and the country's reaction to the "October surprise" changed computing forever.

A shot in the rear

David Farber, now a professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, was a young researcher at AT&T Bell Laboratories when Sputnik went up.

"We people in technology had a firm belief that we were leaders in science, and suddenly we got trumped," he recalls. "That was deeply disturbing. The Russians were considerably better than we thought they were, so what other fields were they good in?"

Farber says US university science programs back then were weak and out of date, but higher education soon got a "shot in the rear end" via Eisenhower's ARPA. "It provided a jolt of funding," he says. "There's nothing to move academics like funding."

Farber says US universities are no longer weak in science, but they are again suffering from lack of funds for long-range research.

"In the early years, ARPA was willing to fund things like artificial intelligence -- take five years and see what happens," he says. "Nobody cared whether you delivered something in six months. It was, 'Go and put forth your best effort and see if you can budge the field.' Now that's changed. It's more driven by, 'What did you do for us this year?'"

DARPA's budget calls for it to spend US$414 million this year on information, communications and computing technologies, plus US$483 million more on electronics, including things such as semiconductors. From 2001 to 2004, the percentage going to universities has shrunk from 39 percent to 21 percent, according the Senate Armed Services Committee. The beneficiaries have been defense contractors.

Meanwhile, funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for computer science and engineering -- most of it for universities -- has increased from US$478 million in 2001 to US$709 million this year, up 48 percent. But the NSF tends to fund smaller, more-focused efforts. And because contract awards are based on peer review, bidders on NSF jobs are inhibited from taking the kinds of chances that Licklider would have favored.

"At NSF, people look at your proposal and assign a grade, and if you are an outlier, chances are you won't get funded," says Victor Zue, who directs MIT's 900-person Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the direct descendent of MIT's Project MAC, which was started with a US$2 million ARPA grant in 1963.

"At DARPA, at least in the old days, they tended to fund people, and the program managers had tremendous latitude to say, 'I'm just going to bet on this.' At NSF, you don't bet on something."

DARPA's response

"We are confident that anyone who attended DARPATech in August 2007 and heard the speeches given by DARPA's managers clearly understands that DARPA continues to be interested in high-risk, high-payoff research," says DARPA spokesperson Jan Walker.

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Gary Anthes

Computerworld
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