U.S. Beaten in Brain Game


America has been skunked in a world computer-programming contest. This is worse news for a prosperous and powerful America than it may first appear.

In April, whiz kids from across the globe gathered in San Antonio, Tex., for the 2006 annual acm International Collegiate Programming contest, sponsored by ibm. According to the Baylor University website dedicated to the event, “The contest pits teams of three university students against eight or more complex, real-world problems, with a grueling five-hour deadline. Huddled around a single computer, competitors race against the clock in a battle of logic, strategy and mental endurance” (January 5).

Eighty-three teams were selected from 5,606 teams representing 1,733 universities from 84 countries. Some prestigious American universities were among the 83, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit), Princeton, DePaul University, California Institute of Technology, and Duke.

How did the American universities fair? “We’re the worst of the best of the best,” answered Matt Edwards in response to Duke coach Owen Astrachan’s attempts to encourage the team after its dismal honorable-mention finish (Business Week, May 1).

After mit, which ranked in eighth place, only four other American teams made the top 50. The top 10 was dominated by teams from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. In fact, Russia had five top-place finishers.

“Until the late 1990s, U.S. teams dominated these contests,” wrote Business Week in its May 1 commentary about America’s poor showing at the contest. “But the tide has turned. Last year not one was in the top dozen” (emphasis ours throughout). Eastern European and Asian schools dominate the global tech industry. “China and India, the new global tech powerhouses, are fueled by 900,000 engineering graduates of all types each year, more than triple the number of U.S. grads” (ibid.).

This, then, is the bad news: “‘If our talent base weakens, our lead in technology, business, and economics will fade faster than any of us can imagine,’ warns Richard Florida, a professor at George Mason University and author of The Flight of the Creative Class” (ibid.).

Software programmers are the roots of a modern information-based economy. But, according to Business Week, a 2005 survey of freshmen showed that just 1.1 percent planned to major in computer sciences, down from a paltry 3.7 percent in 2000.

This complacency has left America teetering on the edge being last place among the elite of the world. Will America turn the tide of this complacency? The answer to this question is much more unsettling.

While the U.S. export of information technology is still growing, the leadership position is gone—and it isn’t coming back. In accordance with biblical prophecy, the United States is losing its superpower status in one area after another, continually being overtaken by Russia, China and the European Union.

Russia’s Saratov State University won this year’s competition on the anniversary date of Yuri Gagarin’s historic 1961 voyage into space. It was this feat of science that Business Week suggests touched off America’s quest for scientific dominance—dominance it held for almost 50 years. “Gagarin’s rocket ride shocked Americans out of their postwar complacency, sparking a national quest for tech superiority that led to such breakthroughs as the moon landing and the microchip. A trouncing in a programming contest doesn’t inspire the same kind of response today. Truthfully, Americans just don’t feel threatened enough to exert the effort” (ibid.).

It is clear that America’s technology leadership position is gone. This loss, if not reversed, has the potential to touch all of our lives.