When she was an MIT undergraduate studying electrical engineering, Jeannette Wing ’78, SM ’79, PhD ’83 took a required computer science class and began thinking about changing her major. But before making the decision, she called her father, a professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, to ask one big question: Is computer science just a fad?
“I literally remember asking him that question,” Wing said, drawing chuckles from an audience of MIT students and faculty. Wing’s father assured her that computer science was here to stay. “So I switched,” said Wing, who is herself now the Avanessians Director of the Data Science Institute and professor of computer science at Columbia. “And I’ve never looked back.”
Patti Maes’ career path also began in college, when she couldn’t decide between two majors. Because of an economic downturn at the time, she also worried about the employment prospects in both fields. “I got interested in computer science as a way of [not] choosing between biology and architecture” — and ensuring that she could find a job after graduation, she said. Later, as a visiting professor and research scientist at MIT, Maes began working with robots and artificial intelligence (AI), but eventually moved to the MIT Media Lab, where she is now a professor of media arts and sciences. She said she’s more interesting in human intelligence, focusing on, for instance, how to help people improve their memories, become more creative, and listen better — “these soft skills that we really desperately need to do well in life.”
Wing and Maes were among five academic and industry leaders who participated in “Perspectives from Luminaries: A Panel on Computing and Cognition” in Huntington Hall on Tuesday. The two were joined by MIT Institute Professor and computer scientist Barbara Liskov; Laura Schulz, MIT professor of cognitive science; and Jaime Teevan SM ’01, PhD ’07, chief scientist for Microsoft’s Experiences and Devices product team. The panel was moderated by Stefanie Mueller, the X-Window Consortium Career Development Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), and Vivienne Sze, an associate professor in EECS.
In introducing the panel, MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart noted that the event capped the opening day of this week’s campus-wide celebration of the new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing. “The theme for today was ‘explore,’” Barnhart said. “Tonight, we’re here to listen to and learn from true luminaries.”
Liskov noted that the event organizers had asked panelists to send a photo of themselves with their first computers. “When I was growing up, there were computers — some,” she said, describing the room-sized machines of the time. However, computer science wasn’t yet an academic discipline, and it didn’t occur to her to study engineering because, in the late 1950s, that was “not something girls did.” So she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley, then looked for a job. “That’s when I discovered computers,” she said.
At the time, companies needed programmers. But with no computer-science graduates yet available, Liskov said, employers would hire anyone with expertise that would let them quickly pick up programming skills. So despite knowing nothing about programming, Liskov landed a job at MITRE Corp. On her first day, someone handed her a FORTRAN manual and told her to write a program to solve a problem, and that began her long and distinguished career in computer science. “I was in the right place at right time,” she said, adding later: “I was lucky to get into computer science very early, when there were huge problems just waiting to be worked on.”
After a year, she left MITRE for a programming job at Harvard University, working on computer translation of human language, before returning to graduate school. When she received a PhD in computer science from Stanford University in 1968, she was one of the first women in the United States to earn a doctorate in the field. She returned to MITRE for a few years, then joined the MIT faculty in 1972. She was named an Institute Professor, MIT’s highest faculty honor, in 2008. A year later, she received the Association for Computing Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award, sometimes described as “the Nobel Prize of computing,” in recognition of her contributions to programming language and system design.
Liskov’s definition for computing hasn’t changed much since that first job at MITRE. “One thing that stuck with me all these years is [viewing] computing as a way of solving problems,” Liskov said, drawing nods from many in the audience. “That’s what’s meant by computational thinking.” But she added a warning: “I hope that we as a society learn to tame the technology that we have with us now and make good choices about the technology that’s coming.”
Teevan summed up her story this way: “It’s about being the wrong place at the right time.” After receiving a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Yale University, Teevan worked for a couple of years as a software engineer, then headed to MIT for graduate study. At the time, she said, MIT didn’t offer much in the way of information retrieval or human-computer interaction, so initially, she wondered whether she’d made a mistake. Fortunately, she said, those research in those fields evolved rapidly during her time at the Institute (as did her family; she gave birth to her first three children while in graduate school and later had a fourth).
Teevan has been with Microsoft since 2006, first with Microsoft Research, then as technical advisor to CEO Satya Nadella, and now as chief scientist for Microsoft’s Experience and Devices product team. Her advice to the audience: Keep your entire career in perspective. “Take the time not just to look forward, but to look back, to reflect on what you’re doing,” she said.
Schulz described her computing experience as comparatively brief. “I got a TRS-80 when I was, I guess, 11,” she said, referring to the early desktop microcomputer, and the last time she did any programming was shortly after that. Instead, she focused on human intelligence while studying for a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Michigan. “I was interested in how human learners engage with the world,” she said. After receiving a master’s degree and PhD in developmental psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, she joined the faculty of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Given her nontechnical background, she recalled, friends jokingly asked whether she knew what the “T” in “MIT” stands for. But she added that there’s an obvious need to study both kinds of intelligence: “It’s very clear that children learn in different ways than powerful machines are learning.”
Some panelists offered the audience a peek at research in progress. Maes is exploring how ubiquitous smart devices might positively impact human mental health and psychology. She described how these devices — which already know a great deal about their users — could potentially “intervene in the moment and maybe talk to us when we’re about to engage in a behavior we want to change, or help calm us down when we’re stressed out or anxious, or remind us to be attentive when we’re sitting in a lecture.” Wing, meanwhile, is trying to build a community around what she calls “trustworthy AI.” She noted that researchers understand AI’s exciting potential, “but we also recognize the danger of models that are unpredictable, or unexplainable, or not fair, in the sense of discrimination,” she said. “We need to find ways for people and society to actually trust these systems.”
The panelists said that opportunities for women have improved in both academia and industry, but much work remains to be done. “We just have to keep on going, and pushing,” Liskov said. “One thing that helps is women looking out for women.”
And, she said, women must also look out for themselves. “Sometimes a door will open and you have to decide whether to step through it or not,” she said. “You have to come to grips with what you want, and not what somebody wants for you — something you’re good at and that makes you happy.”