Dean’s Welcome

Friends, welcome to Pitt’s new School of Computing and Information (SCI).   I am deeply grateful to the visionary faculty, staff and university leaders who created the school, and thrilled by the opportunity to serve as its dean.

SCI is the product of optimism, trust and commitment at all levels of the university.  In an era of fragmentation and rancor it takes optimism to say that we, the faculty and staff of distinct colleges and departments, will do better together than apart; and to trust that we will be strengthened, not diminished, by unity.  In an era of inward-looking specialization, the faculty of SCI have committed to look outward, to collaborate on computational research and creative activities in all contexts, from studio arts to digital humanities, from computational biology to digital ethics.  And with commitments both intellectual and financial from Provost Beeson and Chancellor Gallagher, we will help Pitt become a model for Information Age universities

In the coming months you will hear about new academic and certificate programs, new research alliances, new strategic hiring of faculty, and more.  But now, as we begin our venture, I’d like to introduce myself and share my aspirations for the school.

For the past three years I designed and managed programs at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), on loan from the University of Arizona, where I started the School of Information: Science, Technology and Arts.   My dad was a successful painter who became one of the inventors of computer art (some of it is at the Carnegie Science Center), my wife is a psychologist who designs educational software, and our daughter just graduated with a degree in computational approaches to food systems.  None of us respects disciplinary boundaries. We recognize that polymathy — the ability to work in multiple disciplines — depends not on mastering multiple curricula but on learning what disciplines have in common.  Today, the great ideas of computing and information are common to all fields and unite them. What are grammars, networks, conditional probabilities, and time series? What is learning, estimation, parsing, and optimization?  These ideas pop up in every discipline and they provide a common language in which specialists can communicate.  In my DARPA programs, systems biologists work productively with linguists, and linguists with musicians, because they speak the modern, unifying language of computing and information.  Finally, after fifty years of increasing mutual incomprehension, we are talking to each other!

Why is polymathy important?  The usual answer is that creative opportunities live at the boundaries of fields.  Let me offer an additional reason:  Humanity depends on complicated, interacting systems that we understand poorly.  At a macro scale, we depend on climate, weather, water, energy, finance, food, transportation and social systems; at a micro level, we depend on cell signaling, immune systems, microbiomes and the like.  At all scales, these systems bump into each other in complicated ways.  None of these systems — much less their interactions — belongs to a single academic department.  I want to promote systems-oriented research, technology and education at Pitt, because the world’s systems are increasingly stressed, and we need new methods to model and manage them.  This is a great and distinctive challenge for the School of Computing and Information, a natural reason to unite disciplines at a critical time, and an urgent impetus for polymathic education.

Please join us!

Paul Cohen
Dean, School of Computing and Information