Russia is kicking our butts at problem solving and that’s a shame

The goal Paul Henderson scored in 1972 Summit Series to claim victory over the USSR will forever be a part of the Canadian cultural memory. In the midst of the Cold War when the west was so clearly pitted against the east, having a clear triumph over the eastern super power was electrifying. Somehow the fact we could win a game of hockey was a cue that we could win the battle of ideas too.

Well its 2013 and the west and east are no longer pitted against each other in the great battle of ideas. Instead we’re facing off in the struggle for innovation, the key ingredient to transform our post-industrial economies into the 21st-century knowledge-based economies that are the ticket to a prosperous future. The difference this time is the competition testing our mettle won’t be won by one heroic and timely act – because the score’s not even close. When it comes to problem solving, the Russians are kicking our butts.

At the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Competition (ICPC) the smartest computer science students from universities around the world face off in a five-hour competition to solve as many difficult problems as possible. Hosted this year by the University ITMO in St. Petersburg, Russia, the home team also claimed the top prize – for the second year in a row and the fifth time ever at the competition, more than any other school. Other eastern schools peppered the top 12, medal-winning spots at the competition including the University of Moscow and ITMO’s cross-town rivals in St. Petersburg State University. Canada didn’t even come close, with the University of Toronto nabbing 46th spot overall as the country’s top showing. The University of Waterloo, normally medal finishers, came in 52nd.

The University of Waterloo dropped from ninth place in last year's competition to 52 overall.
The University of Waterloo dropped from ninth place in last year’s competition to 52 overall.

The ICPC has been sponsored by IBM since 1997. Big Blue has labeled it the “Battle of the Brains” and has vastly increased the scope of the competition since coming on board as the lead sponsor. The competition that started at Baylor University in Texas now touches six continents around the world and sees 300,000 student compete annually in school, and then regional, competitions for a chance to visit the world finals. As the competition has become more global in scope, it has become apparent the western schools are being left behind by schools from eastern Europe and China. At the 37th world finals this year, just one American team cracked the medals and most were much farther down the list. The last North American team to win the competition was Waterloo in 1998. Many western European schools don’t even send a team to the competition.

Everyone involved in ICPC knows the eastern schools are superior. The host cities of the competition have pivoted to reflect the new order that has been established. Last year the competition was hosted in Warsaw, Poland. Next year it will be in Russia again, east of the Ural mountains in Yekaterinburg. Talk to the students from Canada’s teams and they acknowledge they have little hope of besting the Russians or Chinese – they even tell tales of the near-mythical training programs participated in by their rivals.

Talking to the director of the computer science program at St. Peterburg’s University ITMO was revealing. He told me that the students on the winning team prepared for the competition by solving 3,000 problems over the past year. The students in Russia have a thirst for competition to test themselves against others, they want to be the best. There’s no negative cultural associations with the concept of sitting in front of a computer monitor for hours each day and practicing math.

The program director from the University of Warsaw, last year’s competition host and gold medal winner, also has some insight to share. He says that to be successful at the competition, students must be engaged in solving computer science problems during high school. If they don’t start training until they get to university, it is already too late.

Also one must concede that there’s simply a larger population in eastern Europe and China than there is in North America. Students who manage to make it to the ICPC world finals have already tested themselves against a much larger pool of contestants to survive regional competitions.

University ITMO cheerleaders perform at the ICPC world finals in St. Petersburg.
University ITMO cheerleaders perform at the ICPC world finals in St. Petersburg.

We should be worried about the trend at the ICPC World Finals. We talk about the need to foster innovation a lot lately, but the results of this competition are an indicator that we’re not doing it right. If the next generation of leaders for the knowledge economy are coming from the east, then that’s where the good jobs and the exciting opportunities are going too.

This year, Paul Henderson was inducted into the Order of Hockey in Canada for his achievements, most notably the winning goal in the 1972 series. Forty years from now, are we going to be celebrating the accomplishments of computer scientist in a similar fashion? It doesn’t look likely, and that’s a shame.

Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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