Looking Forward by Looking Back
The Next Fifty Years
cation to their ability to succeed in a 21st-century economy and
are therefore flocking to computer science courses at an unprecedented rate. I see no evidence to suggest that this heightened interest will subside at any point in the next fifty years. I
therefore believe the following prediction is sound.
Computing will continue to grow in importance relative to
other fields, particularly as more disciplines become more
computational. Students will be attracted to computing in
growing numbers for the foreseeable future.
The recent report from the National Academies Committee
on the Growth of Computer Science Undergraduate Enrollments [ 5] supports my prediction in the following findings.
FINDING 2: Enrollments in CS courses and the number of CS majors have risen markedly since 2005 at
many institutions, and there is no indication that enrollments will fall in the near term. Both CS majors
and non-majors have contributed significantly to the
recent growth in enrollment in undergraduate CS
courses. Information about current program enrollment trends suggests that the boom in enrollments
has only begun to register in the data on CS degree
production, and that CS bachelor’s degree completions will rise sharply for at least the next few years
The breakthroughs in computing in recent years are staggering beyond anything we could have imagined fifty years ago.
In 1957, computing pioneers Herb Simon and Allen Newell
predicted “that within ten years a digital computer will be the
world’s chess champion.” [ 6] That forecast was overly optimistic. It took forty years for chess algorithms to beat world-cham-pion Garry Kasparov. Five years ago, however, hardly anyone
would have predicted that a computer program could win
against the world’s top Go player any time in the next several
decades, but AlphaGo and its deep-learning strategies accomplished that milestone in 2016. The leading edge of technology
just moves faster and faster as computers become more central
to the modern world.
THE GROWING CENTRALITY OF COMPUTING
Research and development in computer science—no matter
whether it is carried out in universities or industry—has a profound impact on the world in which we live. If nothing else,
computing has become the main driver of the world economy.
Figure 1 makes this point clear by listing the five largest industrial corporations in 2007 and 2017.
In just ten years, the list of the top five industrial corporations has shifted from including no computing companies to
being entirely composed of them.
Similarly, every survey of employment suggests that com-
puting jobs dominate the employment needs in the science,
technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and
will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The charts in
Figure 2 show the fraction of current employment, projected
growth, and projected job openings for five broad categories of
As Steve Lohr reported in a recent New York Times column,
there are more than enough graduates to fill existing jobs in
most STEM disciplines. “Computing,” he notes, “is the only ex-
ception.” [ 4]
In recent years, more and more high-paying jobs require
not just computer literacy but significant coding skills. Burning
Glass Technologies, a consultancy that analyzes employment
data in computing produced the graph in Figure 3, which shows
that, even today, half the jobs in the highest-income quartile
require coding skills.
Students today recognize the importance of computing edu-
Figure 2: Employment growth in STEM disciplines. [ 1]
Figure 1: Top five industrial corporations by market valuation. (Financial
Times Global 500 rankings)
Figure 3: Fraction of jobs in each income quartile that required coding
skills. [ 2]