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Conference Focuses on 'The Mobile Future'

An interview with James Morris

Carnegie Mellon University's West Coast Campus and UC Berkeley's Fisher IT Center at the Haas School of Business partnered to hold a conference Tuesday of this week in Santa Clara, CA, on "The Mobile Future: Technology Revolutionizing Our Lives." CT talked with James H. Morris, dean of CMU West and a professor of computer science, about the unique conference that brings together both academics and industry leaders.

CT: Why have CMU West and UC Berkeley's Fisher IT Center at the Haas School of Business decided to hold a conference event on “The Mobile Future”?

JM: As you know, Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley are leading universities in engineering and technology, and it’s become apparent to us, as well as many people, that the future of computing and Internet expansion is actually going to be happening more on mobile devices like cell phones than on computers like laptops. So, we think that this 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 fast-moving force but in fact in some ways are so much in the middle of it that they don’t have time to step back for a day and understand where it’s going to be in several years. (Photo: Jim Morris at The Mobile Future conference)

What types of technologies will the conference be looking at in particular?

The technologies we’re most interested in are the hardware and especially the software involved with 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 country 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 are probably going to be talking mostly about software -- Carnegie Mellon emphasizes software in computer technology -- but also about new product ideas that may be supported by that software.

CMU has always informed industry about new technologies. Could you comment on your own institution’s role -- both CMU and CMU West – in fostering technology change or even technology revolution, either within higher education or in a more generalized marketplace?

Many years ago I was one of the participants in Carnegie Mellon’s Andrew system, which exploited personal computers and networking to transform our campus into a modern campus that led the way for computer systems that not only supported campuses, 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 made the campus into a huge test bed for showing a new basis for computing based on those technologies. And of course, we got wonderful support from IBM and other companies, including Apple and Digital Equipment, 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 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 divisions or development divisions are already creating a lot of this infrastructure. One of the things we would hope to do is look deeply into the uses of technology by normal people, understand those technologies and how they come together into systems that are useful for people. That’s what we’ve done in the past. As you may or may not be aware, 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. I’d say Carnegie Mellon’s distinctive brand as a school that’s interested in computing is that we’ve always been interested in the phenomena and the uses of computing as much as the actual construction of these things.

Is there a role for higher education institutions in general to play in fostering revolutionary technologies as they appear?

Oh, sure! Aside from studying phenomena, which is actually 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, who typically own cell phones more than automobiles. And a discussion we just had was: How would cell phones that are aware of where you are all the time help you get along without an automobile? If you look at 18 year olds today, they generally don’t own cars, and they have been told incessantly about global warming and might not want to own cars. And 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.

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 Carnegie Mellon or another university could greatly improve the quality of its carpooling and ride sharing systems using technology. The crucial components are that you have a location that people are trying to get to, and you also have a community of trust -- people who will get into cars with each other.

So, there are lots of ways in which universities, simply as communities, end up being the first places for the use of some technologies.

And instant messaging, which is very popular now all over the world, was being used by graduate students at Carnegie Mellon twenty or thirty 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 that’s a very congenial way to communicate.

And a more recent example is FaceBook. A group of Harvard 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 maybe a million people -- and it just sort of came out of serving a simple university tradition.

So, I think 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, I think it happens there first.

CMU seems to be taking, very proactively, 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 conference that we are having this week is as much to help ourselves and to help the academics who are going to attend, to understand what’s happening with industry. We think of these conferences as industry-academic dialogs, to try to give some academic perspective to what’s going on, and to have industry explain what direction they are headed in. We’re committed to being catalysts for discussion.

(Photo: A "dean duo" -- Jim Morris, dean of CMU West, at left, and Len Waverman, dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, at right -- discussing the day's sessions at the close of The Mobile Future conference.)
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