Curiosity counts

Ask Ruzena Bajcsy what she likes to read, and expect her to leap to her

feet and grab a hefty book from the shelves in her office. On this occasion,

"The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the

Computer" by Georges Ifrah has her excited.

But why stop with a little light reading? Bajcsy, the assistant director

of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorate at the

National Science Foundation, is also trying to educate herself about biology

so she can understand how the brain carries out computation. She wants to

apply that processing ability to new computing methods.

Bajcsy is a University of Pennsylvania professor trained in electrical

engineering and computer science. As a pioneering machine perception researcher

and the founder of Penn's robotics laboratory, Bajcsy has advanced the fields

of human-centered computer control and artificial intelligence. In short,

she designs machines that can see and manipulate objects.

By delving into as many disciplines as possible, Bajcsy figures she

can keep up with new developments in and applications for technology. In

turn, she can help NSF encourage the next generation of researchers develop

ever-more beneficial devices.

"As far as I'm concerned, I have made it — my life, my career — but

I always worry about how I can help the community," said Bajcsy, a native

of the former Czechoslovakia. "As an immigrant, I am extremely grateful

to this country for the opportunities I got; that as a woman scientist I

got the opportunities I got. Accepting this job is a payback," she said.

When Bajcsy became chairwoman of Penn's computer science department in 1989,

her dean was Joseph Bordogna, now deputy director of NSF. Bajcsy's interest

in multiple disciplines makes her a successful researcher, Bordogna said.

"To bring that engineering capacity in a general way to computer science

is hard to find," Bordogna said. "That's important because what we're trying

to do is look across a broad swath of technologies and integrate them in

some way. When you think of doing that in a leadership way, Ruzena has all

the pieces."

Bajcsy probably would shrug off the compliment, but she does acknowledge

her amazing luck of being in the right place at the right time.

As luck would have it, President Clinton budgeted a record increase

for NSF in his fiscal 2001 budget proposal. A large part of that money would

be used to promote information technology research and NSF's leadership

in IT.

"It is lucky that IT is having such an impact on our economy," Bajcsy

said. "The arguments [for funding] are not hard to make. My biggest concern

is how we use the money and fairness."

Doling out the money to academic researchers fairly will be the tough

part if the NSF's $4.5 billion funding request for 2001 is approved. The

proposal to increase the agency's budget 17 percent — an increase of $675

million — above the fiscal 2000 operating budget would double the largest

increase in NSF's 50-year history. In 2001, the NSF portion of the multiagency

Information Technology Research program would be $327 million, compared

with $126 million for fiscal 2000, for initiatives in computer system architecture,

information storage and retrieval, connectivity, scalable networks, and

new approaches to computation.

For the next few years, NSF's IT research funding will be available

exclusively to universities because the agency is focused on combining research

with training a 21st-century work force skilled in information manipulation,

information security and other areas of computer science, Bajcsy said.

NSF is partnering with the National Institutes of Health, which needs

a work force trained in IT as the medical field changes from observational

to analytical biology. An indication of the trend toward biotechnology is

the increase in the past 10 years in the number of requests from biologists,

cosmologists and astrophysicists for NSF's computing resources, said Robert

Borchers, director of the Division of Advanced Computational Infrastructure

and Research in Bajcsy's directorate. Borchers is responsible for a solicitation

due this April for terascale computing, which will help meet the increased

demand by providing better and faster computing power.

Noted for her interdisciplinary training, Bajcsy believes that future

advances may not come from computers themselves but from the new applications

in meteorology and medicine that affect people's daily lives. Her personal

goals are as fundamental. "I remember one time, about 15 years ago, we asked

her what's her lifelong dream," Bordogna said. "She wants to have a robotic

kitchen."

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