On July 1, 2012, Lance Fortnow took the helm as chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science, bringing with him three decades of experience as a theoretical computer scientist.
Educated at MIT and Cornell, Fortnow specializes in computational complexity, recently with applications to microeconomics. Prior to coming to Georgia Tech, Fortnow served as professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern. In addition to his primary faculty role, he also had an appointment in Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management and an adjunct professorship at the Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago.
In this interview, Fortnow talks about why he chose to leave Chicago and head south to lead one of the country’s hottest CS programs.
Why did you want to chair the School of Computer Science?
The opportunity to come to Georgia Tech and lead a school with outstanding faculty and a great reputation in computer science proved irresistible.
When you meet non-computing people and tell them about the School, what do you say?
The big challenge is to educate the public that computer science is more than using computers and programming. I usually talk about the great challenges in computing such as Big Data, parallelism and networking, or how computation will continue to change their lives—for example, that new cars will drive themselves by 2020.
Georgia Tech prides itself on exploring the full breadth of computing. How does the School of CS fit into that picture?
I like to use the example of the iPhone. Many people look at the great look-and-feel and the beautiful apps. But to make it all possible requires fast processors, reliable and efficient operating systems and programming languages, strong networking, smart algorithms, high security—all things the School of Computer Science excels at. Computer science is at its best not when it tries to tackle a specific problem, but when it develops tools that have broad applications.
In 10 years, how will the School of CS be different than it is today?
It’s an impossible question—remember, 10 years ago we had no Facebook . Our school will adapt and continue to lead in new technologies and (hopefully) actually develop those new technologies. I hope to see a larger and bolder School of Computer Science, with a faculty that attacks our current challenges (Big Data, networking, parallelism and others) but can quickly pivot to address unforeseen future directions of our field.
What can Georgia Tech—and the School of CS in particular—offer master’s & Ph.D. students that other universities can’t?
Georgia Tech offers an incredible breadth of research activities in computer science, from deep thinking about the purely theoretical to developing tools and techniques for computation, to creating applications and even addressing societal issues. Computing at Georgia Tech goes well beyond the College, and you see it ingrained in almost every department in the Institute. The students in our school will learn about and help develop the tools and techniques from the point of view of a wide set of applications in computer science.
How does the School of CS contribute to undergraduate education at GT, and what more would you like to see it do in the future?
Georgia Tech integrates computation into nearly every aspect of its curriculum, and a large proportion of Institute undergraduates take courses taught by School of Computer Science faculty and instructors. Our faculty bring expertise in areas that allow us to create the platforms for computing and to make them work better. Undergraduates who go through our program are much sought after by industry, even in these tough economic times.
In the future, I’d like to see the School take a more centralized role in the CS curriculum and develop a program that truly focuses our undergraduates on creating the future of the computing universe.
What do you consider the single greatest advance—technological, sociological, economic, etc.—in computing since you were an undergraduate?
Again, a very difficult question; there have been so many great advances in computing since the early ‘80s. I often think that I would impress my younger self mostly by a device in my pocket that gives me immediate access to all public information and allows me to communicate instantly with anyone anywhere. And I can shoot birds at pigs!In your spare time, what do you do for fun?
Spare time, what’s that? My great loves are watching opera—the musical art form, not the browser—and baseball. Opera, alas, is not as strong in Atlanta as in Chicago, but Atlanta does have a great major league team, and I can watch Tech baseball games from my office window.
What’s your favorite place so far to hang out with friends and colleagues at Georgia Tech?
I haven’t been at Georgia Tech long enough to really explore the campus. I had some great quick lunches at the Biotech Bistro.
"If I had it to do over again, I’d be a _______________."
I’m been extremely lucky to have chosen an academic field of study—computational complexity—that I both love, find fascinating and am not that bad at. It’s also made me a part of the computer science community during an era that CS is literally changing the way people live. I can imagine having been an economist or legal scholar, because these areas have similar ways of thinking and perhaps I might have had a more direct impact on the world than through my theoretical studies. But I’m completely happy being a computer scientist and don’t regret for a second the choices that I made.