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.

  • Slideshow: