During the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) International Committee Meetings which took place from 13 to 17 February 2016, Krassimir Manev, IOI President and Professor at the Department of Informatics at the New Bulgarian University, spoke with a journalist from the Kazan University newspaper.
- Mr Manev, the idea of an International Olympiad in Informatics for schoolchildren (IOI) was first conceived at the 24th UNESCO General Conference in Paris in 1988. The main goal of the IOI is to unearth and nurture gifted students of IT from all around the world. And you are head of the International Olympiad Organisational Committee.
- The first Olympiad President was elected in 2005. Since then we have had presidents from China, Mexico and the United Kingdom. The position comes with a three-year term, so I am the fourth acting president and will finish my term in 2017.
- Are you already preparing your replacement?
- No. We don’t yet know who will be the next president. We will find out after the vote at IOI 2017 in Iran.
- This the first time that an Informatics Olympiad of such a scale will take place in Russia. However, since the competition’s inception in 1989, Russia has consistently posted excellent results on a par with traditional leaders like China and USA. Why has the Olympiad taken so long to get here?
“If we take the Soviet era into account, the 1990 International Olympiad in Informatics was held in Minsk. And Russia did not bid to host the Olympiad until 2011. Russia only put forward a candidate for consideration by the International Committee for the first time at IOI 2011 in Italy, and as a result the Russian Federation was chosen to host the IOI in 2016.”
- In one of your interviews you said, ‘Informatics has a huge future; it is a powerful tool, comparable with nuclear energy…’. Tell us about the pluses and minuses of the ‘energy’ of informatics.
- To put it more accurately, informatics is the nuclear energy of the thought process. One feature of contemporary society is the fact that all areas of human activity are touched by a global phenomenon we have come to know as the informatisation of society. The modern processors on which a computer’s power is based are able to perform millions of simple operations in the space of a single second, enabling far swifter solutions to complex problems. With the help of a computer, a person can make great strides in scientific research, including in such innovative areas as robotics, space and nanotechnologies. At the same time there are certain drawbacks. Many children spend too much time in front of a computer. Often they are not learning anything. It would be far better to refrain from wasting their time doing nothing in particular on a computer and concentrate on self-improvement. As with any energy, informatics is not without its dangers. Therefore it is important to maintain control and use this energy wisely.
- The difficulty level changes every year at the Olympiad. Who is able to solve the Olympiad tasks?
- The questions set at the first Olympiad are now being solved by kids in the 5th or 6th class. The contestants at our Olympiads solve them. These days IOI tasks are extraordinarily difficult – not just average students struggle with them, but good ones too.
- Who creates the tasks for the Olympiad?
- The tasks are written by previous Olympiad contestants and by members of that year’s IOI National Scientific Committee (NSC), and, of course, by members of the IOI International Scientific Committee (ISC).
Compiling, testing and choosing Olympiad tasks is a long and taxing process. For example, at the end of 2015 the ISC invited countries to submit tasks for the next Olympiad in 2016. This means that anyone who wishes to may submit a task, and the scientific committee will select the best 20 for further consideration for inclusion in the Olympiad. At the meeting in Kazan, the ISC chose the 12 tasks which the experts thought were the most difficult and interesting.
The committee will work on these tasks until August. Just before the start of the competition they will select six for use in the competition.
- Could you conceivably spend half a year working on a task, only for a participant to solve it fairly quickly?
- It’s unlikely, but it has happened. Three years ago a very specific article to do with programming algorithms was published in a scientific journal. Two years ago the scientific committee based a task on that article, and posed it to the Olympiad contestants. Two students, one from Romania and one from China, solved it in under half an hour. They came up with the same solution which the scientists who wrote the article had worked on for several years. As I say – the IOI attracts some exceptionally talented students.
- Do you ever keep track of what becomes of Olympiad participants and winners? Where they end up? What they go on to do? Do they just melt into the crowd?
- We don’t keep data on it. But I know from experience that psychology plays a role: someone becomes a successful businessman; another a programmer. And there are some who give strong showings at the Olympiad but whom companies aren’t exactly in a rush to hire. Those with ‘too strong a personality.
The modern workplace is based around teamwork, where individuals, even those very capable in their field (as our contestants invariably are), can find it difficult. There are no clearly-defined rules as to how Olympiad participants will fare in later life.
In a way, the Olympiad is like Formula 1: participants have to write a program in a predefined period of time, have to quickly find a solution. We have many students who struggle at the Olympiad due to issues with speed. Yes, they are good programmers, but they are thrown by the time limit. It’s not simply a case of solving the problem, but doing so before the time runs out. For this reason I am campaigning in Bulgaria for the addition of another nomination in our Olympic competitions to recognise this, like homework on a project.
These days there are many commercial professional programming competitions taking place around the world. They are organised by large companies (like Google and TopCoder – corporations who run programming competitions like sports) to scout the participants and offer jobs to the strongest. I believe such competitions are very necessary, as the global software industry is facing a serious dearth of specialists.
These days software is important to all. Applications are being transferred to ‘cloud’ platforms and operating systems are no longer unipolar, meaning software products need to be rewritten. There is much work to be done, and so we need to attract as many young people as possible.
- Are there any competitors you’ll be keeping your eye on?
“Lots, including, of course, the Bulgarians. There’s one lad in particular from Bulgaria who, if he wins gold, will have four gold and two silver medals in the bank. It will be the second highest result in the history of the whole Olympiad in Informatics, after Gennady Korotkevich.”
- In one Olympiad, Korotkevich scored 600 out of 600…
- Russians have scored full marks and been declared absolute winners on more than one occasion. Gennady was an IT genius, that’s an irrefutable fact. He didn’t just score maximum points – he won six gold medals and was absolute champion three times. I can’t see anyone matching that in the foreseeable future.
- What’s your prediction for the three top spots in the coming Olympiad?
- I think one winner is sure to come from Russia, as well as one each from Bulgaria and China.
- How do you see the future of the international Olympic movement in informatics?
- I don’t see any drastic alterations. We already have a good system of preparing the tasks and preparing the students.
- What would you like to see changed?
- Computers these days are fast, powerful calculating machines. Difficulties in task input have arisen. It has become impossible to give large amounts of input at competitions because a lot of time is wasted on data reading. Both the scientific and technical committees took the decision to write a program only using the data present in the computer’s memory. But in real life, programs do not receive ready-prepared data. I’d like the tasks to mimic real life as closely as possible.
- Mr Manev, what do you expect from IOI 2016 in Kazan?
- We always hope for good tasks and an interesting contest.