Computer Science Pioneer Looks at the Past and Future of Her Field

By Karen Klinger

Most people do not know her name, but when they use a computer to run a Google search or send an e-mail or buy a product online, they are benefiting from the pioneering work of veteran MIT faculty member Barbara Liskov.

In a male-dominated discipline, Liskov has a impressive string of achievements ranging from the distinction of being the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from a computer science department (at Stanford University) to recently being named the winner of the A.M. Turing Award, the computing world’s most prestigious prize.

Along the way she also has worked to diversify the field by reaching out to women and underrepresented minorities in her role as MIT’s Associate Provost for Faculty Equity.

During a luncheon discussion at the MIT Museum as part of the Cambridge Science Festival, Liskov said that as an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley she pursued a degree in mathematics because in the early 1960s, the school had no computer science department.

After graduation, she came to the Boston area and got a job as a programmer at the MITRE Corporation in Bedford where she discovered “I had a real ability” for the work. After a brief stint working at Harvard on a computer language translation project she enrolled at Stanford, studying under John McCarthy, a visionary in artificial intelligence.

In 1968, with her Ph.D. in hand, she returned to MITRE, working there until then-MIT President Jerome Wiesner recruited her for the institute’s computer science department. She arrived in 1972 to discover that “I was one of 10 women out of about 1,000 faculty members.”

At MIT, Liskov laid the basis for today’s computer information infrastructure by developing the programming languages CLU in the 1970s and Argus in the 1980s, which became the forerunners for widely-used programs such as Java and C++ that are the foundation for software applications essential to personal computers and the Internet.

After she won the Turing award—named for British mathematician Alan M. Turing, who helped crack the Nazi “Enigma” cipher during World War II—Liskov’s MIT colleague John V. Guttag observed that “Every modern programming language has ideas in it that can be traced back to Barbara.”

Today, as the head of the programming methodology group at MIT, Liskov is focused on research that allows computer systems to continue operating even if some of its components fail. Her work has helped lead to the development of so-called “fault-tolerant distributed systems” that are better than their predecessors at resisting hacking and errors.

Still, she acknowledges that there is an ongoing need for better protection from the computer viruses that seem to be everywhere, causing headaches for those operating everything from home desktops to large corporate and government arrays.

“We read all the time about attacks that cause computers to malfunction,” she said. “They happen because of errors in software programs that allow viruses to get in.”

One of the big things she envisions for the future is the creation of online storage systems that would be make data equally accessible to someone using a computer at home, at the office or at a café and eliminating the need for constantly making backups.

To do that, though, “You need to engineer systems that perform well on a very, very large scale. You also need security for online information,” she said. “I want to make sure my data does not get lost, I want it always to be available and I want to know that it won’t be leaked.”

In her other role at MIT as associate provost for faculty equity, Liskov is trying to make computer science more appealing and accessible to women, African Americans and Hispanics, who are woefully underrepresented at all levels from undergraduates to faculty ranks.

She said that for women, the problem starts at a young age when girls “opt out” of studying subjects that society tells them is “guy stuff.” In an attempt to deal with that bias, she said MIT has an outreach program that brings high school girls to the campus for a six-week introduction to the work that she and her colleagues do.

Liskov said that at MIT, nine out of about 50 faculty members in her field are women and around 20 percent of the graduate students are female. Among the undergraduates, “We’ve held in the low twenties (percentages) for a long time, but recently it’s moved up a bit. So overall, we’re not doing badly, but we could do better.”

Looking at the challenges the country faces, she thinks computer science will—and must-- play a major role in tackling problems ranging from global warming to affordable healthcare. “Computer science is an engineering field that is driven by reality,” she said. “You can find very interesting philosophical problems by thinking about reality.”