Catch the Next Wave

Why is Steve Ballmer '77 so bullish about Harvard Computer Science?

At Harvard, computer science is outward facing; it is the connective tissue that enables high-impact research and learning—across both the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the wider University. Harvard is uniquely positioned to lead in the applied and theoretical computational fields that will transform our world for the better. A 50-percent increase in the size of the computer science faculty will change the game. Building on collaborative connections with the University’s other departments and professional schools, housed in a new state-of-the-art, multidisciplinary facility, and located at the heart of an emerging research enterprise zone, computer science will be the new operating system for innovation at Harvard.

"We aim to be the best—in the quality of our undergraduate education, the impact of our research, and the excellence of our graduate training." Frank DoyleDean, Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

  • Harvard students understand that intractable societal problems—from containing epidemics to the search for clean energy—are inherently computational challenges. More undergraduates are concentrating in computer science. More students from all disciplines are enrolling in CS courses. A new master’s program in computational science and engineering, housed in the Institute for Applied Computational Science, has quickly established itself as a preeminent center of scholarship and real-world training. This growth is helping us realize our vision for computer science: to advance every field of learning and to have a positive impact on human society.

    Why is CS 50 the most popular course at Harvard?

  • Boz Quote

    Andrew “Boz” Bosworth ‘04

    Vice President of Engineering, Facebook

    I owe a great deal to my time studying Computer Science at Harvard. In addition to a valuable technical curriculum I was able to connect with brilliant engineers across both the faculty and the students. Even after a decade in the industry I still work closely with several people I first met as an undergraduate and have close ties to many more. There is no substitute for a dense gathering of smart people to inspire creativity and that’s precisely what I found in Computer Science at Harvard.

  • Understanding how computing shapes—and serves—culture, education, and the economy

    Modern economic systems rely on both human behavior and algorithms, and the results can be difficult to predict. But understanding such systems—and designing better ones—is crucial for emerging industries like the peer-production economy, in which Internet services and apps allow users to share car rides, curate news articles, or aggregate restaurant reviews. How do algorithms create incentives and influence behavior? What makes an economic system trustworthy and reliable? Prof. David C. Parkes studies topics like auction theory, reputation, voting rules, and machine learning to improve the design of the economic systems that facilitate our daily lives.

    David C. Parkes, George F. Colony Professor of Computer Science; Harvard College Professor; Area Dean for Computer Science

    In addition to teaching and advising students in CS, Prof. Parkes teaches a course in Applied Mathematics and conducts research with faculty in the departments of Statistics and Economics.

    How can machine learning and artificial intelligence improve access to computing for people with disabilities? Can technology help large communities work together on creative tasks?

    Krzysztof Gajos, Associate Professor of Computer Science

  • Improving decision-making through artificial intelligence, data analysis, and discovery

    Children with complex medical conditions such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy have large, frequently changing teams of doctors and specialists whose expertise and perspective on a patient’s condition vary widely. A change in treatment by one doctor may have implications for others, but the information needed to detect conflicts is often inadequately shared. Prof. Barbara Grosz, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, is working on algorithms to ensure that providers have the information they need at the time they need it—from each other, patients and their families. She is also investigating ways to leverage crowds with varying expertise to translate health information and improve health literacy. These multi-agent systems can improve teamwork and communication among the patient, family, and care providers.

    Barbara Grosz, Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences

    As the first dean of science, and later dean, of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Prof. Grosz made significant contributions to interdisciplinary research and to the advancement of women in science. Her research in CS draws on economics, philosophy, and psychology and has included collaborations with many institutions including, most recently, Boston Children's Hospital.

    What can a thousand robots do that a single robot can’t? How does complexity arise in nature?

    Radhika Nagpal, Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science

  • Today’s theory is tomorrow’s solution

    To a creative mind, what appears to be a limitation can actually be an opportunity. That’s the philosophy behind cryptography, for example, which relies on the limits of computation to protect secrets. But what does it mean, in a technical sense, to guarantee a level of privacy or security? And what are the societal costs of denying access to information?

    Prof. Salil Vadhan tackles these questions in a multidisciplinary project called "Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data.” In collaboration with the Center for Research on Computation and Society, the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, this project aims to provide formal privacy guarantees for individuals whose personal data—such as their medical records—are used in large-scale research studies. Vadhan’s
 research focuses on a mathematical formalization of privacy called "differential privacy.” His algorithmic tools facilitate data analysis without making any individual identifiable. The project could help researchers in the social sciences, public health, and medicine to more freely access and share valuable data—without compromising privacy.

    Salil Vadhan, Vicky Joseph Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics

    Prof. Vadhan's collaborators include faculty at Harvard Law School, the departments of Statistics and Government, and research centers across the University.

    How can we process a massive data stream quickly and using very little memory? Are both possible at once?

    Jelani Nelson, Assistant Professor of Computer Science

  • Crafting the systems that keep us connected—now, and into the future

    Prof. Eddie Kohler is a self-described hacker who works to make our networked world run better, smoother, and faster. He does that by optimizing systems—software, networking code, and programming languages—so that they are easy for other programmers to use and understand.

    Kohler specializes in measuring complicated systems, determining where and why performance bottlenecks occur, and then constructing new abstractions and design elements that simultaneously improve performance and simplify the construction of new systems. His recent Silo project, for example, threw out an old assumption and improved the design of the multicore in-memory databases on which much of the Internet depends. Kohler builds sleek tools that negotiate the performance tradeoffs between scalability and robustness, ensuring that our systems and networks can withstand the most demanding applications.

    Eddie Kohler, Microsoft Professor of Computer Science

    In addition to studying computer science, Prof. Kohler earned a bachelor's degree in music from MIT. He cofounded Mazu Networks, an application performance reporting and analytics company, and served as its chief scientist until it was acquired in 2009.

    Faced with unimaginably large collections of data, how can we ensure that data systems remain interactive, intuitive, and fast?

    Stratos Idreos, Assistant Professor of Computer Science

  • Stronger Networks Quote

    Christopher Thorpe '97, Ph.D. '08

    CEO, Philo, Inc.

    The "super power" of a Harvard education is its simultaneous depth and breadth. Undergraduate liberal arts requirements honed my communication skills, which have led to success in technology business leadership, just as graduate breadth requirements led me to discover an unexpected fit with cryptography; that research is now being adopted for real-world problems. The flexibility to learn about anything and work with people from any background, and the lifelong relationships I developed with mentors and friends at Harvard, have become the two cornerstones of a successful, rewarding career.

    • The future Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will span the Charles River with campuses in Cambridge and Allston. From the earliest machines in the basement of the Cruft Laboratory to the 3D visualization and multitouch displays in Maxwell Dworkin, CS at Harvard has come a long way. Take a look at nearly 100 years of memorable moments dating back to the dawn of the computer age.
    • Howard Aiken, a graduate student in Physics, helped launched the field of Computer Science when he wrote a proposal for a giant calculating machine in the 1930s. The finished product—the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, later known as the Harvard Mark I—stood 8 feet high, 51 feet long, and 2 feet wide. Aiken is pictured in 1944 with a section of the Mark I. --Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives (HUP Aiken, Howard H.).
    • Aiken, Grace Hopper, and Robert V. D. Campbell, MA ’48, are pictured here with the Mark I in the basement of the Cruft Laboratory on August 4, 1944. Hopper, a Navy Lieutenant, wrote the hefty manual for the machine, established a library of frequently used code functions, located the first computer “bug” (a moth), and later invented the programming language COBOL. --Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives (HUPSF Computers [2]).
    • To operate the Mark I, a user had to write a program in code that could be read by the computer. That code was then converted into a series of holes punched into a paper tape, each line of holes representing a single instruction. Inside the tape reader, a series of feelers would search for holes, closing a relay switch every time one was found. Those relay switches routed information to other parts of the machine. --Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives (UAV 362.7295.8p, Box 3).
    • The Harvard Computation Lab at night, ca. 1947. The Mark I ran 24 hours a day. "It sounded like a clickety-clackety rhythm band," said Anthony Oettinger '51, Ph.D. '54, who was one of Aiken’s graduate students and is now Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Mathematics and Professor of Information Resources Policy, Emeritus. Whenever the machine stopped, a bell would ring, alerting a technician to press a button or turn a knob to prompt the computer to move on to the next step. --Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives (UAV 605 [SC207]).
    • Over the years, the Mark I (pictured at right) remained in good company in the basement of the Cruft Laboratory. The UNIVAC I (center) was a machine Grace Hopper helped to develop after she left Harvard in 1949; she also invented the first compiler. This picture was taken in 1956, the year the Sperry Rand Corporation donated the machine to the University. --Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives (HUGFP 59.10).
    • 1966: Ellen Anschuetz ’69, Sandra Auchincloss ’69, and Sally Albers ‘69 pose with a new computer in the basement of Cabot Hall, Radcliffe College. Partly intended as a pedagogical experiment, the console was connected by telephone to a central computer in Philadelphia and could help students with homework involving calculations and statistics. “This type of technical apparatus will become a standard tool of business and education in the next ten years,” predicted Norman Zachary, director of the Harvard Computing Center. --Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives (UAV 605 [AS895-25]).
    • Harry Lewis ’68, AM ’73, Ph.D. ’74 poses with his senior thesis project, SHAPESHIFTER. The program ran on a PDP-1 computer equipped with graphical displays. As Harvard Magazine described it at the time: "The program accomplishes rapid transformations in the complex number plane, and allows the user to quickly visualize the results of a specific mathematical transformation. The transformation equations are inputed [sic] to the computer by means of a drawing 'pen’ … and converted into machine-recognizable code. The actual computations are then controlled by this code." --Courtesy of Harry Lewis.
    • The late Prof. John Bishop (left) and Warren McFarlan '59, MBA '61, DBA '65, Baker Foundation Professor and Albert H. Gordon Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus (right) in a computer lab at Harvard Business School, ca. 1970. Bishop, a mathematician by training, was the University's first director of the Office for Information Technology and encouraged the use of computer technologies throughout Harvard. McFarlan's research has been essential to the development of corporate information systems. --© Ivan Massar, courtesy of the HBS Archives Photograph Collection: Faculty and Staff, Baker Library, Harvard Business School (olvwork390917).
    • A DECsystem-10 computer at Harvard in the 1970s. Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Monte Davidoff '78 used a similar machine at Harvard to write their famous Altair BASIC interpreter shortly before Gates and Allen founded Microsoft. --Courtesy of the HBS Archives Photograph Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School (olvwork383010).
    • Harry Lewis (now Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science) lectures in NatSci 110 in the fall of 1977. A young Henry Leitner AM '75, Ph.D. '82 (now Senior Lecturer on Computer Science) can be seen facing the camera in the back of the room. --Courtesy of Harry Lewis.
    • Alfred Spector ’76 (shown here with a Teletype) was a teaching fellow in NatSci 110. He went on to become vice president of strategy and technology for IBM’s Software Group and is now a vice president of research for Google. --Courtesy of Henry Leitner.
    • Grace Hopper in naval uniform, ca. 1983, the year she was promoted from Navy Captain to Commodore (a position later renamed Rear Admiral). --Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives (UAV 362.7295.8p).
    • By the early 1990s, Henry Leitner was teaching CS 50 at Harvard. Here he is pictured acting out a facetious algorithm to change a baby's diaper in CS 50. --Courtesy of Henry Leitner.
    • David Malan’s 1999 Harvard College yearbook photo. Malan, now Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Computer Science, stayed at Harvard to earn his master’s degree and Ph.D. in Computer Science at SEAS. He now teaches CS 50, the largest course at Harvard College. --Courtesy of David Malan.
    • Frederick Brooks, Jr., Ph.D. ’56, received the ACM Turing Award in 1999. A former student of Howard Aiken’s, Brooks coined the phrase "computer architecture," developed IBM's System/360 computers, and introduced the lower-case alphabet into word processing. Other Harvard recipients of the Turing Award include Michael Rabin (now Thomas J. Watson, Sr. Research Professor of Computer Science) in 1976, Ken Iverson ’51 ’54 in 1979, Richard Karp ’55 ’59 in 1985, E. Allen Emerson ’81 in 2007, and Leslie Valiant (T. Jefferson Coolidge Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics) in 2010. --Photo by Jerry Markatos.
    • In October 1999, Harvard celebrated the dedication of the Maxwell Dworkin building, a new home for computer science and engineering on campus. Construction of the new building—erected on the site of the former Aiken Computation Laboratory—was enabled by a gift from Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, who were then chairman and president of Microsoft, respectively. The building is named in memory of their mothers. --Photo courtesy of Payette.
    • April 2001: Prof. Michael Rabin explained how secret messages can be embedded in rapidly moving streams of random digital bits in ways that cannot be decoded even with unlimited computing power. It was, he told the Harvard Gazette, the first provably secure coding system ever developed. --Photo by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications
    • Artificial intelligence expert Barbara Grosz (now Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences) was appointed Dean of Science at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in fall 2001. In addition to developing new interdisciplinary programs, she made it her goal "to increase both the overall visibility of women scientists at Harvard and the number of women scientists on the permanent faculty." --Harvard staff photo by Kris Snibbe.
    • As enrollments in CS have grown dramatically in recent years, the faculty have pioneered a variety of innovative teaching techniques, including the “flipped classroom” approach (shown here in Harry Lewis’ CS 20, a math course for CS concentrators) in which students use class time to solve problems collaboratively instead of listening to lectures. --Photo by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.
    • Harvard Women in Computer Science hosted a two-day conference called Women Engineers Code (WECode) in January 2014, bringing together some of the most successful computer scientists to meet with and inspire female CS students from 40 colleges and universities around the nation. Harvard also sends a group of students every year to the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. --Courtesy of Harvard WICS.
    • CS 50, Introduction to Computer Science I, is the most popular course at Harvard College, with 869 students enrolled in fall 2014. Highlights include the all-night Hackathon and the festival-like CS 50 Fair, an epic display of student projects that solve a problem and change the world. --Courtesy of David Malan.
    • In 2019, the computer science faculty will relocate to a brand-new, state-of-the-art science building, along with faculty in robotics, mechanical engineering, translational life sciences, soft condensed matter, and soft materials. The University is also partnering with developers to build a nearby conference center and a research innovation zone, placing SEAS at the intellectual heart of a thriving innovation ecosystem. --Courtesy of Behnisch Architekten.