Section: Campus Life
25 years of the Computer Science study programme: constant change|
“We have too little visibility”
From 20 to 29 October the Computer Science Department of ETH Zurich celebrates the 25th year of existence of the Computer Science study programme (1). Professor Carl August Zehnder is one of the founding fathers of Computer Science (Informatics) – he has worked and fought since 1970 for the introduction of the study programme and the foundation of the present-day Department. In an interview to mark the anniversary he looks back on it and on the central question of Computer Science and its future.
ETH Life: Mr. Zehnder, the Computer Science study programme you initiated and created is 25 years old. How old could it have been by now?
The first courses in Computer Science were offered in America and England in 1965 and in Germany and France in 1969. We – Niklaus Wirth and I – began our campaign in 1970 and made repeated applications. However, eleven years passed before the Federal Council decision that was needed for it in those days came into being.
What was the biggest hurdle?
There were three of them. Firstly the general public didn’t know what Computer Science was. For that matter they don’t yet really know today: even in secondary schools they think computer science applications are the same as Computer Science.
Many professors did not regard Computer Science as worthy of a higher education institution, or thought that it could be offered as a postgraduate study – an inconceivable idea particularly in view of the current demand for computer scientists.
The second hurdle?
That was professional jealousy. There was a prevailing anxiety that the creation of a new department would cause resources to be cut in favour of that department.
The third hurdle was worry over competition in the employment market. In fact Physics assistants were concerned about their jobs. In the seventies many worked as computer scientists. They were afraid they would be ousted by highly trained computer science specialists.
What led to the breakthrough?
The battle on all fronts. As a computer science columnist I was able to run a public relations campaign, for example in the quarterly computer science supplements of the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.
Which research areas profited most from the development of computer science?
Since the sixties the ETH Computer Centre’s biggest customer has been the chemists. However they were the very ones who did not want to know anything about a corresponding degree programme. For them computer science was purely a means to help them.
How many students did you have at the start of 1981?
We began with a 1st and a 5th semester simultaneously. Students in all disciplines were able to matriculate for the 5th semester. The only pre-condition was that they already held a second intermediate diploma from ETH. 110 people enrolled for the 1st semester and 23 people took up the study programme in the 5th semester. That meant we already had the first graduates in 1984.
In fact Computer Science at ETH is much older than the degree programme. When did you first come into contact with computer science?
In 1958 I attended a programmer’s course that was offered as an optional subject.
ETH was very successful with hardware development in the early days of Computer Science: the ERMETH (ETH Electronic Computer) was built here in 1955 and Niklaus Wirth created the Lilith workstations in 1978-80. Why did this not have any impact on the industry?
Because there is always a great gulf between research and the industry. The development of a research success into a market-viable product involves enormous investments. The cost of this step is normally many times that of the research itself.
So where was Lilith built?
Niklaus Wirth, Richard Ohran and I formed a company in Utah because that was the only place where we had access to the required chips. Precautions associated with the Cold War made it impossible to export these chips to Europe at that time. That’s why Lilith was mass-produced in Utah. Only four prototypes were made in Zurich, and one of the two producers that we found went bankrupt. However, it would be wrong to think that research only makes sense when it runs directly through into a financially viable production line.
But computer science seems to be especially marketable nowadays in particular. It is certainly no accident that Google has recently set up in Zurich as well.
That’s true. One of my former doctorate students is a director at Google. That shows clearly enough that our performance in training and research is very good. However, this is insufficiently perceived in public – otherwise we probably would not have had any problems recruiting young talent.
Why do people not have a better perception of it?
We have too little visibility because many of our informatics products are components of other products, namely in the finance sector in Switzerland. There is no longer a single banking or insurance product today that can survive without a very large amount of computer science. Chemistry is also vitally dependent on informatics – but no-one perceives this as the product of computer science.
But to those who are engaged in it, Informatics with all its areas of application such as Wearable Computing and the numerous simulations appears to be a very young, dynamic science.
That is so. It has its immaterial nature to thank for that. In this field you can create things that are impossible in the physical world. On a computer you can even build a bridge to the moon.
In your opinion, what makes Computer Science unique?
The fact that development itself can be made the subject of development. Computer Science enables a program to be produced automatically. That is the novelty. It was impossible until the invention of the computer.
Which science benefits most from Computer Science today?
It is impossible to say. There is simply no longer any science that does not make use of Informatics.
And what is its greatest service to science?
The fact that it enables simulations. It gives science a third basis: in addition to theory, which already began in antiquity, and experimentation, which has been known since the Renaissance, a third scientific method has been created through computer science: the process being studied can be simulated. This leads to entirely new possibilities: for example the Big Bang cannot be built as an experiment but it can be simulated. That means a virtual model can be built.
Computer Science is a very extensive field nowadays. Isn’t there a need to sub-divide the discipline into various regions?
In a certain sense it is already, through what are called the hyphenated informatics. In Zurich Business Informatics is offered only at the University – a deliberate separation and a good one. Bio-Informatics is a modern catchphrase in the Life Science field, and the Computational Sciences do everything related to the above-mentioned simulations. Development there is particularly rapid.
In general we are actually more interdisciplinary than any other department. I have already had doctoral students from various disciplines including Psychologists and Architects.
In which field is ETH Computer Science in the lead?
Of course that varies. Previously it was the programming languages. Today we are particularly strong in Cryptography and Bio-informatics for example. It always involves several fields at the same time. At any rate, six of the seven Swiss ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) fellows are at ETH Zurich.
What is the biggest problem?
We have too few students. The demand for highly qualified computer scientists is greater than the number of graduates produced by the higher education institutions. Nor can this demand be satisfied by cross-discipline entrants who come to computer science as users and then take further training. That is because informatics is becoming ever more complex. The longer cross-discipline people work at it, the more often they come up against their limits.
What is the biggest challenge facing Computer Science at ETH today?
It must succeed in presenting its individual characteristics in such a way that it can attract sufficient good young people.
You can write a feedback to this article or read the existing comments.