Madhu Sudan gave a colloquium at Harvard yesterday on his work on Universal Semantic Communication and Goal-Oriented Communication (both with Brendan Juba, the latter also with Oded Goldreich). The papers are available here, and here are the slides (pdf). One of the motivating examples for the work is the following : you're visiting another department for the day, and need to print something out. You have access to a printer, but your machine doesn't speak the same language as it does. So you have to get a driver, install it, and so on, and all of a sudden it takes 1/2 an hour to do a simple print job. Why can't the machines figure out how to get the simple job done -- printing -- without this additional work?
More abstractly, one can pose the high-level idea in the following way: Shannon's theory was about the reliable communication of bits, and we've solved a great deal about those types of communication problems. But even if we assume that bits are transmitting correctly over a channel, how can we ensure the meaning of those bits is interpreted properly, particularly in the sense of if those bits represent a task of the form, "Please do this computation for me," how do we ensure the other side performs the computation we want done if we don't have a prior agreed-upon semantic framework?
I've seen in various settings criticism of this line of work, which is quite abstract and certainly a bit unusual for CS theory. The original paper is often referred to as "the aliens paper" because it set the question in terms of communicating with aliens (where there may naturally be no shared semantic framework), and my impression is that several people felt it is too far removed from, well, everything, to be of interest. It was, I understand, rejected multiple times before being accepted.
I have to say the impression that this paper is "too far removed" is incorrect based on the reaction at the talk Madhu gave. Part of it may be a change in message -- no talk of aliens, and more talk of novel devices connecting to the Internet makes the problem more tangible. But it was remarkable how many people were interested -- our computational linguist and programming languages faculty seemed really intrigued, and there was also great interest from some of our other systems people. (It helps to be in a department where faculty outside of theory are generally perfectly comfortable seeing PSPACE-completeness and reductions show up on slides -- is that usual, or are we spoiled here? Multiple questions on the details of the definitions were asked by non-theorists...) Many people shared the impression that this was a new way to think about some very challenging problems, and while the work so far is too theoretical to be of practical use -- indeed, it's arguably still at the stage where perhaps the right frameworks or questions aren't entirely clear -- they seemed to view it as a start worth pursuing further.
I think this sort of paper is a rare beast, but perhaps it does serve as an example that a new conference like ICS is needed as an outlet for this kind of work. In particular, it's not clear to me that FOCS/STOC always has a good handle on where theory could be of large interests and have a significant impact on other communities. My complaint generally takes the form that FOCS/STOC (and even SODA) weighs mathematical "difficulty" far, far greater than practical utility when judging work in algorithms and data structures, but this seems to be a related issue.
Anyhow, thanks to Madhu for an excellent talk.