This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I interview Barbara Liskov: MIT Institute Professor, 2008 ACM Turing Award Recipient, 2004 IEEE John von Neumann Medal Recipient, Fellow ACM and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Distinguished, Celebrated, World-Renowned Researcher.
Barbara Liskov, 2008 ACM Turing Award Recipient, heads the Programming Methodology Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, where she has conducted research and has been a professor since 1972. In 2008, she was named an Institute Professor, the highest honor awarded to an MIT faculty member.
Liskov is one of the first U.S. woman to be awarded a Ph.D. from a computer science department (in 1968 from Stanford University). She revolutionized the programming field with groundbreaking research that underpins virtually every modern computer application for both consumers and businesses.
A member of the National Academy of Engineering, she is a Fellow of ACM and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She received the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award in 1996, and in 2002, she was named by Discover magazine as one of the 50 most important women in science. She received the IEEE John von Neumann medal in 2004. In 2005, she was awarded the title of ETH Honorary Doctor by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH). In 2008, she received the ACM SIGPLAN Programming Languages Achievement Award.
The author of numerous publications, she wrote three books including “Abstraction and Specification in Program Development” with John Guttag, which has educated generations of students in how to write good software. Liskov served as an associate editor for ACM Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems (TOPLAS) and is a member of the ACM Special Interest Groups on Programming Languages (SIGPLAN), Operating Systems (SIGOPS), and Management of Databases (SIGMOD).
Liskov has also served on the National Science Foundation’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Advisory Committee as well as the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) of the National Research Council. Before joining MIT, she was a Member of Technical Staff at The Mitre Corporation. A graduate of the University of California Berkeley with a BA in mathematics, Liskov earned a Ph.D. at Stanford University, where she was a graduate research assistant in Artificial Intelligence.
ACM presented the ACM Turing Award at its Awards Banquet on June 27 2009, in San Diego, CA.
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Barbara shares when she heard about this extraordinary honour as recipient of the 2008 ACM Turing Award, widely considered the Nobel Prize in computing, how she felt at the time and the reaction from her colleagues and her family.
Tell us more about your vision and objectives behind your current roles? What do you hope to accomplish and how will you bring this about?
“….At present I am still a professor at MIT and I am working with a bunch of graduate students doing research. In addition, I have a position as Associate Provost for Faculty Equity and I am working within MIT to increase opportunities on the faculty for women in under-represented minorities….”
With so many honours for your lifetime body of work, do you find they contribute to your vision and to your work with industry, government, academia, technology, etc.? Do they help you in your work?
“….I believe that it does make my work more visible than it was before it happened, and to that extent it probably does at least contribute to perhaps more of a dialogue between people and industry and people and academia in my work in particular….”
Why were your initially attracted to computing?
“….Sort of accidentally. I graduated with a degree in mathematics at a time when computer science was very young….I got a job as a programmer and discovered that I had a real bent for computing….”
You were the first US woman to receive a Ph.D. from a computer science department. What were the major challenges you faced at that time and how did you overcome them? Which challenges still exist today and can you outline others that are new?
“….The kind of overt discrimination that used to happen is probably not happening anymore but I don’t think the problems are gone. I think there is a lot of unconscious discrimination. One of the things I do in my job as Associate Provost is to try to educate people about all the unconscious bias that still exists….”
What were the most important lessons you want to share from your time at Mitre Corp?
“….When I started work at Mitre I was still thinking about work rather than a career….I came to realize while I was at there that I was really dedicated to a career and I began to think of my life in very different terms. The way I thought of it when I started at Mitre was very much coloured by being a woman in my generation where women weren’t expected to have careers. So I had to get over that mindset and think about things in a different way…”
How would you describe your top innovative achievements in terms of the problems you were trying to solve, your solutions, and the impact it has today and into the future?
“….Abstract data types (valuable method of organizing complex programs)….Designed CLU and specifications (object oriented language incorporating “clusters”)….Argus (based on work in CLU and provided a way of writing programs that ran on multiple computers over the internet)….Liskov substitution principle….work in distributed computing and fault tolerance….Byzantine fault tolerances……Information flow control (way of preserving confidentiality of online information)….”
Can you profile your current research, its challenges, opportunities and implications?
“….What I am very interested in today is about storage in the cloud….I think that this is going to become the universal way of doing business….My major research focus today is what are the properties that a storage service has to provide in order for me to be really happy with it. I’ve been interested in how to ensure that the data we put into this storage service is always there when we need it and never gets lost…but I am also interested in the confidentiality of the information. That’s my major focus right now….”
Over your long and distinguished career, what are your top lessons you want to share with the broad audience?
“….You really have to work at the problems but it is also very important that you don’t work all the time. You need to focus but you also need that down time….It’s very important to have a balanced life….A sense of humour is very important…Give people credit for what they do….”
If you could sum up your life experiences with career tips for the ICT professional, what would be your tips and the reasons behind them?
“….Join your professional organizations….Keep up with the literature, really pay attention to what’s going on around you because that way you will have the tools that you need to do your job…”
What are the challenges of the future, their implications and how can people best prepare for them?
“….The best thing you can do is to get a broad education…..I’m talking about undergraduate education – not to focus too much on one particular subfield. You don’t know where you are going in the future and you need to have a grounding that will make it possible for you to move your area and make those shifts as time goes by….”
Are there other kinds of technologies out there that you see coming up that you think we need to pay attention to now?
“….People are trying to design machines that have many cores….They are starting to talk about machines with hundreds and thousands of cores and people don’t really understand how to program these machines. The issue of how to write parallel programs has been a long-standing one for which people have never had a satisfactory solution. I think maybe now that problem is going to come to the fore again. It’s really unclear how we are going to be able to give people the intellectual tools that will allow them cope with that kind of environment ….I see that as a major technical problem looming in the future….”
Do you have any views on things like quantum computing?
“….Quantum computing has yet to prove itself….There are research projects in quantum computing and biological computing and it will be interesting to see what comes of those….One of the things I have seen over my career is a real change in how computer scientists are viewed by scientists…”
Do you think that the promise of the semantic web will ever be realized?
“….My guess is that machine learning is going to take over. Machine learning is a technique that allows programs to learn about stuff. The problem that they are trying to address with the semantic web is a really difficult one because different people address the same concept in different ways – and how do you make sense out of that. They are trying to do it by defining a framework in which to place this stuff. But maybe a better way is not to do that but instead have the tools that will allow programs to figure out what the similarities are. I suspect that might be a better way to go, but time will tell….”
Barbara, you laid many of the pillars for modern-day computing as one of the top groundbreaking visionary innovators. How do you wish to continue to shape the world and contribute to the fabric of history?
“….The major way in which I can affect history is through my students….”
What do you see as the top challenges facing us today and how do you propose they be solved?
“….The top challenges are the ones that everyone points out….Global warming….Energy consumption and finding alternate forms of energy….Healthcare and finding other ways of quality healthcare at less expense….None of these looks on the surface like a computer science problem. But in fact all of them are computer science problems because part of the solution is going to be through the automatic controls that computers can offer….”
What groups are under-represented in computing and how can this be addressed?
“….Women are definitely under-represented compared to their proportion to the society at large….Under-represented minorities, African Americans and Hispanics are even more under-represented….These are not problems that can be solved at the university level, they are societal problems that we have to work on especially in the education that is available to people before they reach the university….”