What is CS109 all about?


While the initial foundations of computer science began in the world of discrete mathematics (after all, modern computers are digital in nature), recent years have seen a surge in the use of probability as a tool for the analysis and development of new algorithms and systems. As a result, it is becoming increasingly important for budding computer scientists to understand probability theory, both to provide new perspectives on existing ideas and to help further advance the field in new ways.

Probability is used in a number of contexts, including analyzing the likelihood that various events will happen, better understanding the performance of algorithms (which are increasingly making use of randomness), or modeling the behavior of systems that exist in asynchronous environments ruled by uncertainty (such as requests being made to a web server). Probability provides a rich set of tools for modeling such phenomena and allowing for precise mathematical statements to be made about the performance of an algorithm or a system in such situations.

Furthermore, computers are increasingly often being used as data analysis tools to glean insights from the enormous amounts of data being gathered in a variety of fields; you've no doubt heard the phrase "big data" referring to this phenomenon. Probability theory is now used as one of the primary methods for designing new algorithms to model such data, allowing, for example, a computer to make predictions about new or uncertain events. In fact, many of you have already been the users of such techniques. For example, most email systems now employ automated spam detection and filtering. Methods for being able to automatically infer whether or not an email message is spam are frequently rooted in probabilistic methods. Similarly, if you have ever seen online product recommendation (e.g., "customers who bought X are also likely to buy Y"), you've seen yet another application of probability in computer science. Even more subtly, answering detailed questions like how many buckets you should have in your a hash table or how many machines you should deploy in a data center (server farm) for an online application make use of probabilistic techniques to give precise formulations based on testable assumptions.

Our goal in CS109 is to build foundational skills and give you experience in the following areas:

  1. Understanding the combinatorial nature of problems: Many real problems are based on understanding the multitude of possible outcomes that may occur, and determining which of those outcomes satisfy some criteria we care about. Such understanding is important both for determining how likely an outcome is, but also for understanding what factors may affect the outcome (and which of those may be in our control).
  2. Working knowledge of probability theory: Having a solid knowledge of probability theory is essential for computer scientists today. Such knowledge includes theoretical fundamentals as well as an appreciation for how that theory can be successfully applied in practice. We hope to impart both these concepts in this class.
  3. Appreciation for probabilistic statements: In the world around us, probabilistic statements are often made, but are easily misunderstood. For example, when a candidate in an election is said to have a 53% likelihood of winning does this mean that the candidate is likely to get 53% of the vote, or that that if 100 elections were held today, the candidate would win 53% of them? Understanding the difference between these statements requires an understanding of the model in the underlying probabilistic analysis.
  4. Applications: We are not studying probability theory simply for the joy of drawing summation symbols (okay, maybe some people are, but that's not what we're really targeting in this class), but rather because there are a wide variety of applications where probability allows us to solve problems that might otherwise be out of reach (or would be solved more poorly without the tools that probability can bring to bear). We'll look at examples of such applications throughout the class.
  5. An introduction to machine learning: Machine learning is a quickly growing subfield of artificial intelligence which has grown to impact many applications in computing. It focuses on analyzing large quantities of data to build models that can then be harnessed in real problems, such as filtering email, improving web search, understanding computer system performance, predicting financial markets, or analyzing DNA.