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KU at Center of Computer Universe

June 30, 2009

For the last 72 hours, Kansas University assistant professor Andy Gill has been a master of the universe, ordering dozens of satellites to move around the galaxy.

All right, it is all part of a game, and the moving of satellites is happening just in the virtual world. But what is real is that, for a weekend, Kansas University has been the center of the computer programming universe.

KU and its Information and Telecommunication Technology Center played host--Friday through Monday--to the international championships for functional computer programmers.

More than 850 teams from around the globe entered the contest. The participants include many of the top programmers in the world.

"There are programmers from companies like NASA and Google that have entered teams," said Nick Frisby, a KU doctoral student who is helping run the competition. "There are all these very talented people from top-tier institutions playing a game that was created at KU. That’s very cool."

The "game" this year focused on moving mythical satellites around in space. A team of KU researchers spent the last several months creating a computer program that represents how the mythical satellites work and function.

The approximately 850 teams that entered the competition were then told to develop their own computer programs to move the satellites to specific points in the universe on a specific time schedule. For example, the final challenge in the competition was for the teams to develop a program for a single satellite to link up with 12 other satellites positioned around the galaxy.

But, of course, there’s a catch. The entire competition takes place over 72 hours, and the teams have no idea what the scenario will be until the competition begins. The end result is a furious amount of work in a short period of time. Gill, who teaches in the electrical engineering and computer science department at KU, was previously on a team that won third in the competition.

"I think we had maybe three or four hours of sleep in the 72-hour period," said Gill, who is supervising the competition for KU.

Winners are determined based on the number of successful programs each team creates. Judges test the programs using a computer program that they have developed, and also score the programs based on overall functionality.

The teams are allowed to write the programs in whichever programming language they choose. That tends to create rivalries between different programming camps, Gill said.

"To say that they are competing for prestige is too nice a word, too finessed a word," Gill said. "They really are competing for bragging rights. In a sense, you are competing for the programing language that you use."

Competitors also are competing to test their own skills. Of the approximately 850 teams, only about 400 actually will complete a program.

KU programmers are not fielding a team in this year’s event because of conflict of interest reasons. But the university is expected to be a big winner. By hosting the competition, KU joins an elite list of schools that have tackled the project. Past hosts have included Harvard, Cornell, Penn and Virginia universities.

"That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this," Gill said. "This group here at KU has been doing some very interesting language research, but it hasn’t been noticed as such. This helps put KU on the map. It gives us some good visibility."

Contest winners will be announced in August at the International Conference on Functional Programming in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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