Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Hopping a ride on the information railroad

Bill Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, came to bury the book, not praise it, in a thought-provoking speech at Iacocca Hall Tuesday.

"The book is dead. I don't think it knows it yet, but the book is dead," Wulf told an attentive group of Lehigh students, faculty, staff, and alumni, as well as faculty members from other universities, in the keynote speech for the Computer Science and Engineering Symposium.

"Why carry a single book to the beach when you can take something that looks and feels similar and can hold every book that's ever been written? And why spend money on a static paper book when you can buy an electronic one that can update its own information?"

”In the future, libraries will not ‘collect.’”

For those who would mourn the passing of books, Wulf, University Professor and AT&T Professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia, offered hope that new technology will provide a major boost to scholarship and preservation of historical records.

"Computation has introduced a new way of knowing truth," Wulf said. "And computers will have a bigger impact on the future of humanistic scholarship than scientific scholarship, by a landslide."

Wulf discussed the value of information technology in the preservation of historical documents and letters, which may once have remained hidden in drawers of protective relatives.

"In the future, libraries will not ‘collect.’ Electronic information can be communicated virtually instantaneously, so its source location is irrelevant," he said. So valuable documents can be scanned by libraries and then quickly returned to their owners.

Mike Bombard '05, a computer science major attending the symposium, was inspired by Wulf’s vision of the future. "The notion that we can use information technology to preserve history is exciting. There are so many places we can go from here," he said.

Other speakers at the symposium, which celebrated the creation of Lehigh’s department of computer science and engineering, included Hank Korth, chair of the department, who delivered a keynote speech on the exciting ways CSE will shape the future of Lehigh; Gregory Farrington, president of Lehigh; and Mohamed El-Aasser, dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Greetings from the computer revolution

Throughout his speech, Wulf referred to ENIAC, the first computer that contained 18,000 vacuum tubes, weighed 30 tons, and took up a space the size of a squash court. As he held up and opened a Christmas card that played a holiday tune, Wulf said: "Today, this greeting card contains a computer 100 times faster than ENIAC, and it costs only 25 cents."

So what does this information railroad mean for the future of education? "That seems like a simple question, but as both an academic and a computer scientist, I don't really know," Wulf admitted. "Ironically, although we can predict the improvement in technology with great precision, predicting the societal impact of that improvement has been difficult."

One thing Wulf did seem sure about was the bright future of online education, and he questioned whether a university has to be an actual physical place. "Customer satisfaction is better at the University of Phoenix than at most universities," he said.

Throughout his talk, Wulf reminded audience members not to run from the information railroad, but to hop on and ride it. "The question isn't can something be done, but when will it be done."

--Elizabeth Shimer

Posted on Wednesday, October 29, 2003

share this story: