Thursday, March 19, 2009

Barbara Liskov wins the 2008 Turing Award

So, finally, back to regular blogging with an excellent award story.

Earlier this month MIT Ford Professor of Engineering Barbara Liskov has been named the winner of the 2008 A.M. Turing Award. The award is presented by the Association for the Computing Machinery to "an individual selected for contributions of a technical nature made to the computing community. And "the contributions should be of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field." It's often called the Nobel Prize in computing, which gives you a sense of the award's prestige.

In 1968 Liskov defended her dissertation - "A Program to Play Chess Endgames” - at Stanford University, becoming the first U.S. woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science. She told the web site "Engineer Girl" that the expectation that she, as a woman, wasn't really pursuing a career allowed to to focus on research that interested her:

I didn't have a plan for where I was going; instead I reacted to obstacles and opportunities. I believe that some of this was due to being a woman. When I was young, it was uncommon for women to think about having a career. The effect on me was that I just focused on doing work that was interesting but expected to stop working when I had a family. I got into research in software systems and I realized that I was really committed to my work and would not give it up. Later when my husband and I had a family, I continued to work full time.
Listen to her interview on Talk of the Nation for more about how she ended up in computer science. She tells Ira Flatow that she didn't feel particularly lonely as the only woman in her (very small) Ph.D. program, and felt like she was accepted like everyone else when she joined the faculty at MIT.

She ended up doing pioneering research "creating and implementing programming languages, operating systems, and innovative systems designs that have advanced the state of the art of data abstraction, modularity, fault tolerance, persistence, and distributed computing systems." The Boston Globe explained the significance of her achievements in slightly less technical terms:
In particular, Liskov developed two programming languages, CLU in the 1970s and Argus in the 1980s, that formed the underpinnings for languages like Java and C++, commonly used to write software applications for personal computers and the Internet. As such, her work helped to form society's information infrastructure.
[. . .]
In the early days of computing, programs were written as long strings of numbers and characters known as code, sometimes broken up by chunks. Liskov's work helped pioneer what is known as object-oriented programming, now the most common approach to software development. She is credited for laying the groundwork for development of sophisticated programs tailored to financial, medical, and other consumer and business applications.
I especially like the idea that her work formed the underpinnings of the software that makes my laptop run and lets my post this very post.

Her current research focuses on distributed computer systems like the internet and security of online storage. In more technical terms:
Her most recent research focuses on techniques that enable a system to continue operating properly in the event of the failure of some of its components. Her work on practical Byzantine fault tolerance demonstrated that there were more efficient ways of dealing with arbitrary (Byzantine) failures than had been previously known. Her insights have helped build robust, fault-tolerant distributed systems that are resistant to errors and hacking. This research is likely to change the way distributed system designers think about providing reliable service on today's modern, vulnerable Internet.
Liskov is only the second woman to win the Turing award. Two years ago IBM Fellow Emerita Fraces E. Allen was the first.

More reading:
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LeCinQBlog said...

Nobel prize in computing ya say?
This story so inspired me.
I wish that such women get interviews on larry king live rather than just random octamom would really help women all over the country to get a better perspective at what real women are doing in the US.

Good job with your wonderfully informative blog posts as always.