21st Century literacy

Once a domain of room-sized mainframes and esoteric databases, computer science is everywhere and part of everything. Basic understanding of it has become, in effect, a 21st Century competency.

The World Wide Web launched as a public domain less than 30 years ago. Your smartphone has more than 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that helped land U.S. astronauts on the moon. The global digital payments industry is expected to top $6.6 trillion this year. Computing technology has exploded in terms of performance and exceeded all imagination in creating value.

Moore’s Law predicts that processor speed and overall processing performance double every two years. Yes, it may be on shaky ground, because in pushing the very definitions of computation and processing, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and nanobiology may prove Moore’s Law irrelevant. The pace of growth with these new technologies, at least in the short term, will outstrip anything Intel cofounder Gordon Moore envisioned.

The School of Engineering is embracing this transformation. In an ever-changing technological world, we must adapt not only to stay relevant but also to lead in generating new kinds of knowledge with new kinds of partnerships. Twenty years ago, Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science were combined to focus on collaborations and strategic growth. This past summer we “re-created” them as two separate departments that must be allowed to grow in their own ways and capitalize on new forms of collaboration.

These partnerships will be with each other, with researchers throughout Vanderbilt, and with engineers and scientists at other organizations. To this end, we embarked late last year on a massive, multi-year faculty recruitment push. Destination Vanderbilt: Computer Science will add at least 20 new tenured and tenure-track positions in addition to existing hiring plans across all our engineering departments. These new CS hires are in four strategic areas:

  • Autonomous and Intelligent Human-AI-Machine Systems and Urban Environments;
  • Cybersecurity and Resilience;
  • Computing and AI for Health, Medicine, and Surgery; and
  • Design of Next Generation Systems, Structures, Materials, and Manufacturing

In the first of three years, we hired 10 new CS professors with specialties ranging from quantum computing to computer vision, cyber-physical systems, autonomous vehicles, machine learning, medical robotics, and game theory. Additionally, we hired four faculty members in three other departments. You will meet all of them on pages 8 and 9.

The new CS and ECE departments will build on their areas of excellence as well as evolve with new core competencies. This arrangement also accommodates for forecasts in enrollment growth and the ever-increasing interest in computer science from non-engineering students.

ECE will focus on four strategic areas based on its faculty’s established national and international recognition: electronic devices, circuits, and computing hardware; design and analysis of digital devices integrated with physical systems; signal and image processing, communications, computer vision, and control systems; and photonics and optoelectronics. In fact, this work has been underway for years. The Institute for Space and Defense Electronics, with deep industry connections, is the world’s largest and most recognized university-facing radiation effects research institute. The Vanderbilt Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, often in collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and other institutions, is creating new materials and solutions to problems long considered unsolvable.

These disciplines are inherently interdisciplinary. Consider a few examples from the pages of this issue of SOLUTIONS:

  • An AI platform that invigorates education with narrative scenarios optimized for individual learners as well as groups,
  • A breakthrough using light to transmit data at two separate infrared ranges—at the same time, in the same device,
  • An algorithm that corrects for image distortions in brain MRIs to give researchers a more accurate picture of neurological pathways, and
  • A system using sensors, drones, point-of-collection diagnostics, and newly imagined data streams to predict emergent biological threats such as West Nile virus.

Research supported by the Data Science Institute has a broad reach as well: deep learning methods for automating recognition of symbols on ancient pottery in Peru; natural language processing to render church records of enslaved peoples written in Spanish and Portuguese; machine learning to establish indicators and potential interventions in so-called diseases of despair, which contribute to higher midlife mortality in the US.

These latest projects span education, medical imaging, epidemiology, archaeology, history, and psychology and public health. Large efforts also are underway to improve mobility, urban quality of life, and personal and public safety.

With our new faculty, computer science will be more accessible to a wider range of Vanderbilt students seeking education in data science, cybersecurity, system architecture, and other computing-related areas required for career success and advancement in the world of today…and of tomorrow.

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