As I See It

By Nelson Morgan, Director

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

--Robert Frost, from "Mending Wall"

This year, with Congressional elections coming, many of our Federal legislators have rediscovered that undocumented visitors are entering our country. Much of their discussion has been pretty negative, particularly in the House of Representatives, where the emphasis has been on prevention and punishment. There are issues there, to be sure, but it would be a very bad thing if this discussion fanned the flames of intolerance. (Although "intolerance" as a descriptor has its limitations too - "tolerating" someone isn't too far from disliking them). For 230 years the US has been receiving immigrants, and there's no way for any of us to know how many broke the rules for entry. And of course with the exception of the Native Americans among us, all of us are descended from immigrants.

An intolerant attitude towards immigrants, or even the perception that such an attitude exists, is detrimental to scientific and technological progress. For instance, researchers can delay or forego internships or sabbaticals in the US because of perceived (and often real) difficulties with the visa process. Even when the formal process goes smoothly, international colleagues can be more wary about close collaboration when they infer widespread xenophobia in our country. Our participation in offshore international scientific exchange (for instance, participation in largely European projects) can be further limited by such impressions.

A brief look around ICSI, or around the Berkeley campus, reveals people from all over the world working together effectively. Of course ICSI and UC Berkeley both work very hard to ensure that our visitors have the proper visas, etc., and I'm certainly not suggesting that the legal requirements be ignored. But when immigrants become scapegoats for our problems, our future is at risk. For it has always been the immigrants that have led the way; it is immigrants who have prevented stagnation, providing new life for our culture.

Three of my four grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe in the early part of the 20th century. Frankly, I have no idea if they arrived in full conformance with legal requirements of the time, and I expect that this is true for many of us whose ancestors arrived in that era or before. But they worked hard and did well, and had large families that I think contributed significantly to their society, as do nearly all immigrants.

ICSI is based on the idea that science in general (and computer science in particular) thrives on a perspective that ignores national and ethnic boundaries. In practice, in order to achieve this, we often make quite specific agreements with national entities, and of course we work closely with US Federal agencies to try to improve the scientific and educational base in our own country. But it is difficult to make progress without paying attention to what is currently going on elsewhere.

Intolerance towards the "others" reaches its extreme in warfare. What can we say about this? People around the world have legitimate grievances that should be aired, but they continue to express them in a way that requires the suspension of the recognition of our human commonality. Sitting here in comfortable Berkeley there is little we can do to change this worldview. I suppose that it is naive to think that competing groups can resolve their differences with a tough foosball game or by a verbal debate followed by sharing beer and pizza, but somehow it still seems to me that bringing individuals together to work in common, for instance in science or music, could help.

So, amidst a turbulent world, and one that sometimes seems to have forgotten the virtues of the search for knowledge, sits ICSI. We're very small, but I think we're doing the right thing, or at least we're trying to. We work to keep the Internet free while making it more secure; we try to make human-machine interaction more natural so that the humans don't have to be like machines to use them; and we are starting to develop applications of computer science to problems in genomics and to the study of cellular machinery. These topics do not comprise all that is being done in the name of computer science, but what they do cover is important. And in each case, the work is being done by a combination of US-and foreign-born scientists, and with far-reaching collaborations in Europe and Asia.

In this issue, we are focusing on the efforts in the study and processing of natural language that is going on at ICSI. This has been a major concern here since ICSI's inception, and important milestones have been achieved. Of course we will also inform you about the latest batch of ICSI babies, which is a particular pleasure to acknowledge. I have no new grandchildren to report, but since I already have 9, this is not a problem.