As I See It, March 2009


By Nelson Morgan, Director


We have met the enemy, and he is us.

–– Pogo, a.k.a. Walt Kelly


I'm writing this column in January at the start of the Obama era. High hopes are all around, and at the same time great trepidation — the economy has taken a nosedive, worse than the recession that came after the dotcom bust and the 9/11 attacks. Unemployment is rising throughout the country (and the world), the stock market is in the doldrums, and there are multiple wars in the Mideast. Upcoming baby boomer retirements are set to bust the entitlement programs, while the health care system manages to be utterly insufficient and yet incredibly expensive. In the meanwhile, humanity's carbon imprint continues to grow (though a momentary slowing in its growth may be the only positive aspect of the worldwide recession) and our dependence on fossil fuels remains nearly complete. With broken budgets in California and many other states, educational systems are coming under even greater stress, with likely increases in class sizes, college tuition, and reductions in services. And however much we might point to particular politicians for having brought us to this juncture (and they have), the American people (and more generally, people around the world) are ultimately responsible. We are the enemy.

Not exactly an upbeat scenario, despite the enthusiasm with which much of the country has greeted the start of our new President's term. Clearly the new administration has had its hands full from its first day in office. However gifted the new President and his advisors might be, they are only human.

But if we are the enemy, we are also our own cavalry. "We are the ones we have been waiting for" is a nice turn of phrase, but indeed it is only the people themselves who can provide the upturn we require. We are the ones who must provide support for new programs to improve education, to toughen pollution standards, and to radically transform the health care system. We are the ones who must insist on strict conformance to constitutional rights, and on the use of science–based decision–making. It is the support of the people for all of these things that will permit the new government to move us in a better direction. Statements made by this administration, such as the ones at, or in previous memos released during the campaign and transition, give us hope that they will be receptive to these messages.

What does any of this have to do with ICSI? ICSI, like any other organization devoted to research and education, is deeply affected by the world at large. Trends over the last 30 years have made it increasingly difficult to pursue long–term research, as short–term goals have come to dominate. An upswing in respect for science will make it more likely to at least partly return to an era where a longer–term perspective in scientific inquiry will be supported. A radical improvement in America's image should increase the pool of young scientists who will be excited to come to the States, and in particular to Berkeley. And as ICSI is an international institute, this will be particularly important to us.

I can't talk about the effects of the new administration without at least acknowledging its historic character. Race should have no part in the choice of our governmental representatives, but its effect has been extreme — we have exactly one African–American Senator (just barely) out of 100, and Barack Obama will be the first black president in the 220 years since Washington's first election. Obama will be living in a White House that was built by slaves. It would be great to be post–racial, but we're not; this is still a big deal. I can only hope that it will mark the beginning of an era when what really matters is the long–term success and happiness for us all, and that our grandchildren and great–grandchildren will be a lot smarter than we have been. Despite the enormous problems listed at the start of this piece, there is a collective vision of peace and prosperity that we not only can strive for, we must.

Speaking of vision, this issue's featured research area is our new effort in Computer Vision. Professor Trevor Darrell is a newcomer to ICSI, and you'll learn more about him and his work in these pages. This area is a great complement to our existing work in other perceptual modalities (speech and text). I hope you enjoy reading about it.