James Morris

Mobilizing Higher Education-- and Industry

CMU-West Dean James Morris on higher education's role in the mobile revolution.

CT Industry

Morris: 'The future of computing and internet expansion is going to happen more on mobile devices like cell phones than on computers like laptops.'

This spring in Santa Clara, CA, Carnegie Mellon University's West Coast campus (CA) and UC-Berkeley's Fisher IT Center at the Haas School of Business partnered to hold a conference on "The Mobile Future: Technology Revolutionizing Our Lives". The unique conference brought together both academics and industry leaders to discuss technology and the evolving mobile marketplace. CT sat down with James Morris, dean of CMU-West and a professor of computer science, to discuss higher education's role in fostering mobile technology innovation.

What was the thinking behind the Mobile Future event? Carnegie Mellon and Berkeley are leading universities in engineering and technology, and it's become apparent to us, as well as to many people, that the future of computing and internet expansion is going to happen more on mobile devices like cell phones than on computers like laptops. This move to mobile devices will be a significant change for everybody, and we wanted to provide useful information for our friends in Silicon Valley-- for technical managers and professionals, academics, and investors-- who are trying to stay ahead of this fastmoving force, but may be so much in the middle of it that they haven't stepped back to understand where it's going to be in several years.

What types of technologies does the conference look at in particular? The technologies we're most interested in are the hardware and especially the software involved in handheld devices like the Apple iPhone; software like Google's Android system; and lots of infrastructure, such as the whole cell phone system as it's provided by the wireless carriers in this and other countries. It's a huge technological system that is evolving around us, aimed basically at providing communications facilities for the people of the world. We talk mostly about software-- Carnegie Mellon emphasizes software in computer technology-- but also about new product ideas that may be supported by that software.

Could you comment on CMU's role in fostering technology change, either within higher ed or in a more generalized marketplace? Many years ago, I was one of the participants in Carnegie Mellon's Andrew [distributed computing] system. The system exploited personal computers and networking to transform our university into a modern campus leading the way for computer systems that not only supported higher ed institutions, but became the model for a lot of computing systems everywhere. So, the interesting lesson from that is that Carnegie Mellon didn't invent the personal computer, and didn't really invent the local area network, but instead made the campus into a huge test bed for demonstrating a new basis for computing, based on those technologies. And of course, we received wonderful support from IBM and other companies, including Apple and Digital Equipment [now part of HP], to show how these new products could be used to make computing at the time a much more dynamic and useful utility for a group of people.

We're now trying to do the same thing with mobility. We're not planning to invent new handsets, or even do research on how to invent new handsets. We have some people who work on new communications protocols, but in fact, many companies with research or development divisions are already creating a lot of this infrastructure. One of the things we hope to do is look deeply into the uses of technology by normal people, and understand those technologies and how they come together into systems that are useful for people. That's what we've done in the past. Carnegie Mellon isn't just an engineering school; it has a serious business school and a college of humanities and social science, which have been studying not how to build computers, but how computers should be used. We've always been interested in [technological] phenomena and the uses of computing, as much as the actual construction of these things.

"One of the things we hope to do is look deeply into the uses of technology by normal people, and understand those technologies and how they come together into systems that are useful for people."

Is there a role for higher ed institutions to play in fostering revolutionary technologies as they appear? Oh, sure! Aside from studying [technological] phenomena-- which actually is a very important thing to do-- and aside from building internets, social scientists at Carnegie Mellon and other institutions can tell society what the internet is doing for us or to us. And you would expect the same sort of thing to be happening with mobile computing. There are many reasons why universities might be innovators in this area.

For example, universities are full of young people, and if you look at 18-year-olds today, they generally don't own cars-- plus they have been told incessantly about global warming, and might not want to own cars. On top of that, they love using technology to communicate with each other. They might figure out whole new ways to conduct their lives using mobile devices and mobile communications. For instance, how would cell phones, which are aware of where you are all the time, help you get along without an automobile?

And since a university represents a community of people who trust each other, a lot of social networking activity can happen. So, one of the things we discuss is whether a university could greatly improve the quality of its carpooling and ride-sharing systems using technology.

Thus, there are a number of ways in which universities, simply as communities, end up being the first places to use some technologies. For one: Instant messaging, which now is very popular all over the world, was being used by graduate students at Carnegie Mellon 20 or 30 years ago. They weren't walking around with cell phones at the time; they were sitting in front of computers, but they were chatting with each other, and from the very beginning they discovered that IM is a very congenial way to communicate.

A more recent example is Facebook. Years ago, a group of Harvard [MA] students said, "Let's just automate the old freshman face book." And suddenly they had created a social networking site that's being used by millions of people-- and it originally came out of serving a simple university tradition.

So, I believe universities certainly will lead. They can't run the wireless infrastructure of the country-- there are many things they can't do-- but in terms of understanding and having imagination about how new technologies can be applied, it happens in higher ed first.

CMU-West always seems to very proactively take the initiative to get out there and talk to industry. Could you comment on that? It's part of the mission of our CMU-West campus here in Silicon Valley to be close to industry. We see it as our role to help industry. But the Mobile Future conference is as much to help ourselves as it is to help academic attendees understand what's happening with industry. We think of these conferences as industry/academia dialogs, designed to give some academic perspective to what's going on, and to help industry explain its next directions. We're committed to being catalysts for discussion.

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