SIGCSE: The Next Fifty Years
by Looking Back
Eric S. Roberts, Stanford University
Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future.
—Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back, 1980
On the occasion of SIGCSE’s fiftieth anniversary, a few of us
who have been around SIGCSE a long time have been asked to
think about the organization’s future over the next half century.
Gazing into a crystal ball that far in advance is, of course, impossible to do with any hope of accuracy. If nothing else, consider the
projections about our field that serious people have offered in the
past. Although there is controversy about whether Bill Gates actually uttered the oft-quoted line that “640K ought to be enough
for anybody,” there is compelling evidence for Digital Equipment
Corporation founder Ken Olsen’s 1977
claim that “there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”
or networking pioneer Dave Walden’s assessment that the limit of 127 nodes in the
ARPANET was “a reasonable approximation of infinity.” As a field, we haven’t been
particularly good at predicting how our
discipline will evolve, and it is unlikely that
we can do much better looking forward
from 2018, at least in terms of specifics.
What we can do, however, is use our
understanding of how computing and computer science education have evolved in the past to make general predictions with
high confidence, even fifty years ahead. For example, I am entirely safe in offering the following claim.
Over the next fifty years, computer science will become increasingly central to our lives, our culture, and our economy in
ways that no one can possibly foresee at present.
That prediction, after all, would have held up perfectly from
the time of SIGCSE’s founding to the present day.
The remaining sections of this paper seek to extrapolate current trends into the future in three areas.
1. The excitement that continues to characterize computing
in the modern age.
2. The increasing centrality of computing to both the modern
economy and the conduct of our daily lives.
3. The challenges and opportunities we face as computer
science educators in this time of great change.
In each of these sections, I start by looking at common
trends in the past and that can serve as reliable general guideposts to the future.
THE EXCITEMENT OF THE DISCIPLINE
I have had the good fortune to be involved in computing for more
than the fifty years that SIGCSE has existed. In 1964, I had a volunteer job soldering connections on the backplane of a room-sized
analog computer that was being built in the electrical engineering
department at my father’s university. My first exposure to digital
computers began a year later as an assembly-language programmer
for the IBM 1401. In high school, the Sputnik-inspired campaign
to prepare more students in science and
engineering gave me wonderful opportunities. I took the three courses our school
offered in electronics and spent most of
a summer at a NSF-sponsored summer
course that introduced me to the IBM
1620—a machine with a teletype console
that one could use as a personal computer, as long as one was willing to stay up
into the wee hours of the morning when
no one else was using it. Through those
experiences, I fell in love with programming and have maintained that devotion ever since.
Starting college in the year the first computer network came
into existence, I was fortunate enough to be part of the networking revolution from its infancy. I have had an email address since 1971 when the first email programs appeared. I also
worked for several years as a graduate student at Bolt Beranek
and Newman, the company that built the ARPANET. My doctoral thesis at Harvard drew on my work at BBN with one of the
earliest multiprocessor systems, a field of research that is still
It was undeniably exciting to have the chance to witness
first-hand those early days in computing. Even so, I feel confident in making the following claim and prediction.
The computing field has never advanced as quickly as it
is moving today. The power that computing offers and the
excitement that comes from being able to harness that
power will continue to grow over the next fifty years.
in computing in recent
years are staggering
beyond anything we
could have imagined
50 years ago.