Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Louis Fein, champion of academic computer science and computing for peace

In 1963, on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the moment the world teetered precipitously on the edge of the outbreak of nuclear war, a computer consultant in Palo Alto, California proposed the idea of a new organization: the Peace on Earth Research Center. The proposition, put forth in Computer-Oriented Peace Research, suggests putting the sharpest analytical minds to the practical problems of achieving peace, constructing computer models to understand the problems that cause armed conflict, and developing solutions to prevent future conflicts.

Its author, the Palo Alto consultant Dr. Louis Fein, had just seen an achievement of his vision at Purdue University, which established the first Computer Science Department in the United States in October 1962. Fein played an instrumental role in the movement to establish computer science as a discrete academic discipline, parted from engineering and mathematics. Oft-rebuffed by universities around the country, he persevered in his attempts, publishing papers and presenting his views across the country.

Fein held pioneering views not only on the place for computer science in academia, but on the role of computers in peace oriented research as well. In Computer-Oriented Peace Research, Fein notes that computer-oriented analysts have directed their experience in many areas,
"...banking, insurance, combinatorial mathematics, chemical engineering, and war gaming. We are quite familiar with the role of computers as problem solvers, as calculators and as simulators, emulators, and imitators. But computers play their most significant role as a socratic goad to analysis and problem formulation."
Just as the Manhattan Project was completed only with a vast research team, Fein writes, we should not expect that peace is task for one professor, or a "lone genius" "on a dedicated philanthropist's grant," but a project needing serious and expert attention from the community as a whole.

It can be difficult to conceptualize peace, and to talk about it as well, but, Fein dismisses complexity as a reason to neglect peace, noting "the distinctive analytic approach to practical problems and computing instruments of computer-oriented analysts" can only be beneficial in finding the solutions for peace.

Now, almost 50 years later, how has the field responded to his call? The past 10-15 years have seen a large number of publications addressing Fein’s first challenge to understand the breakdown of peace by statistically analyzing the empirical data on conflict to better understand the risk factors.

Equipped with this information, the computing community is prepared to tackle Fein’s second challenge: using computing technology to defuse current conflicts and prevent future ones from occurring. Private motivation to go to war as well as the horrific impact of war could be exposed through information visualization techniques. Mobile technologies can help provide information to prevent disease, promote healthy habits, and aid people in developing regions. Technologies to facilitate peer-to-peer micro-financing can also provide more people with opportunities to become economically self-sufficient.

“What the hell are we making these machines for,” asks Fein in a 1965 Time article, “if not to free people?”

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Fein is my brother in laws father. In my post on Peace in Death, Disaster and Disease I address the mission of the Nobel Peace winners. In addition, I am hoping on winning the Man of Peace Award.