“Everyone here is going to be a leader in their field,” said Mehran Sahami, an associate professor in computer science, Thursday during a lunchtime talk at Old Union. “If you understand that technology will have a huge impact in the future and educate yourself accordingly, you will be able to make decisions that impact other people’s lives.”
During the event, organized by Stanford in Government (SIG) as part of the Policy Lunch program, Sahami spoke about the importance of technical education in today’s globally connected world.
“Technology plays a huge role in everyone’s life,” he said. “The biggest problem with our country is that our public policies have not been able to follow this development.”
According to Sahami, the issues are concentrated within three major areas: cybersecurity, intellectual property and education. Bringing up issues such as the Stuxnet virus and stock market flash crashes, Sahami emphasized the major security breaches that our increasingly virtual society faces.
“Think about what would happen if the credit card system were to go down,” Sahami told the 30 students who were present in the conference room.
“You might just be worried that you will not be able to buy your pizza, but the dangers are much bigger than that,” he added, referring to the imminent collapse of our country’s economy if such a breakdown were to occur.
Similarly, Sahami denounced the patent frenzy that is currently sweeping over the United States.
“Intellectual property is one of those things that for a while did not get the play that it is getting now,” he said. According to Sahami, companies now have to give in to enormous cross-licensing deals in order to benefit from the patent portfolios of other companies.
“There is serious money that is being put into this game,” he added. “When patents are awarded for things that your high school friends could have done, it is clear that we are stifling technical innovation. When there is a need for such cross-licensing deals, it probably means that we are awarding patents for things that are not so novel after all.”
Sahami argued that the people who push for intellectual property policies would benefit from having a stronger technical background.
“Patent lawyers who have no technical background<\p>.<\p>.<\p>.are clearly under-qualified to deal which such applications,” he said. “There is no doubt about that.”
According to Sahami, the problem begins with the K-12 system.
“Computer science is neither considered as math or as a science, but rather as vocational training,” Sahami said. He added that “students come to Stanford with an excellent training in math and English, but almost no computer literacy.”
He argued that this is due to a fundamental problem in policy-making, saying that it is not because of a lack of student interest, but schools have not properly advocated the importance of technological education.
“How come Palo Alto High School, across the street from arguably the best computer science institution in the world does not even offer AP Computer Science?” Sahami asked.
He concluded his talk by challenging everyone present to take action.
“I would encourage you to get the technical background to address the problems that you see. Try to inform yourself from the technological perspective,” Sahami said.
Student attendees were enthusiastic about the talk.
“Technology has always been what humanity has been pushing to make better use of resources,” said Zhe Zhang, a second year coterm student in environmental engineering who attended the lunch. “Professor Sahami brought up very interesting points and left me interested in such issues for the future.”