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Consilience: The Path to Innovation

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Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

As a universal intellectual amplifier, computing is the quintessential enabler of 21st century discovery and innovation. Much of computing’s power accrues from its broad applicability and relevance; its definitions are at least as varied as the talents and interests of its practitioners, in varying proportions spanning mathematics, science, technology, engineering, policy, the humanities and the arts. I would not presume to define computing more precisely, for to do so would inevitably omit something important and would unnecessarily constrain its scope.

In this era of hyper-specialization, it is important to remember the combined power of generality and specialization, lest we render true the old joke that education teaches one more and more about less and less until finally one knows everything about nothing and is eligible for a Ph.D. After all, Ph.D. is an abbreviation for the Latin Philosophiae Doctor (Doctor of Philosophy), and science itself evolved from natural philosophy.

I believe solutions to many of the most challenging problems facing our society – medicine and health care, climate and the environment, economic security and privacy – will require fusing expertise from multiple disciplines, including computing. Filling those disciplinary interstices is both our challenge and our opportunity, and we must embrace diverse intellectual cultures and technical approaches to succeed. We also need both computing specialists and generalists who think systemically.

Cooperation, collaboration, synergy and consilience: the words are often used and abused, but the sum really is more than just the parts, and the harmonious integration of those parts is often the difference between excellence and mediocrity. It’s why we have building architects, as well as specialists in each technical area. In the same vein, we need to consider how we combine our disparate technical skills to attack large-scale problems in a holistic way. This is the beauty and universality of our field.


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