Computer Science in Six-Tenths of a Second: What Happens After Hitting ENTER in a Google Search

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A Frontiers in Science Lecture by Lance Fortnow, Chair of the School of Computer Science

What is computer science? Ask Google or Alexa, and you'll get an answer like "the study of the principles and use of computers." That doesn't really capture the breadth of the field.

But how can you get an answer in a fraction of a second? Now that's computer science!

Lance Fortnow will explore

  • the ideas developed by computer scientists that transport your Google query to the cloud 
  • how the cloud keeps track of the massive amount of information needed to answer the question 
  • how algorithms and machine learning figure out what your question means and how best to respond 

All these take place in that six-tenths of a second from the time you make the query until answers magically appear, while keeping your information secure and private all the time. 

About the Speaker
Lance Fortnow is professor and chair of the School of Computer Science in the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His research focuses on computational complexity and its applications to economic theory.

Fortnow received his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989, under the supervision of the theoretical computer scientist Michael Sipser. Before joining Georgia Tech in 2012, Fortnow was a professor at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, a senior research scientist at the NEC Research Institute, and a one-year visitor at Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI; National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science) and the University of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Since 2007, Fortnow has held an adjoint professorship at the Toyota Technological Institute, in Chicago.

Fortnow's research spans computational complexity and its applications, most recently to microeconomic theory. His work on interactive proof systems and time-space lower bounds for satisfiability have led to his election as a 2007 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Fellow. Fortnow was a National Science Foundation Presidential Faculty Fellow from 1992 to 1998 and a Fulbright Scholar to the Netherlands in 1996-97.

Among his many activities, Fortnow has served as the founding editor-in-chief of the ACM Transaction on Computation Theory, as chair of ACM Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computation Theory (SIGACT), and as member of the Computing Research Association board of directors. He served as chair of the IEEE Conference on Computational Complexity from 2000 to 2006.

Fortnow originated and has coauthored the Computational Complexity weblog since 2002, the first major theoretical computer science blog. He has thousands of followers on Twitter

Fortnow's survey "The Status of the P versus NP Problem" is the most downloaded article of the journal Communications of the ACM. Fortnow has written the popular science book "The Golden Ticket: P, NP and the Search for the Impossible," which is loosely based on that article.

Book signing follows the lecture. 

About Frontiers in Science Lectures
Lectures in this series are intended to inform, engage, and inspire students, faculty, staff, and the public on developments, breakthroughs, and topics of general interest in the sciences and mathematics. Lecturers tailor their talks for nonexpert audiences.


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