Berkeley Forum hosts Turing Award winner Barbara Liskov

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and Turing Award recipient Barbara Liskov shared insights and details from her distinguished career in computer science at a virtual Berkeley Forum event Monday.

At the event, Liskov described how she developed the Venus Operating System and programming languages CLU and Argus. She also discussed her contributions to important ideas in modern computer science such as modularity, abstract data types, distributed computing, polymorphism and her namesake, the Liskov substitution principle.

Liskov did not begin her career in computer science, however. She noted that she entered UC Berkeley as a physics major and graduated in 1961 with a bachelor of arts in mathematics.

“I went to look for a job, and I couldn’t find any good job as a mathematician,” Liskov said at the event. “But I was offered a job as a programmer.”

Liskov said at the event she found proficiency and passion in the novel field of computer science. She noted she moved between fields several times throughout her career. A broad education and openness to new pathways are important in finding the right career, she added.

Reflecting on the major impacts of computer science, Liskov said it has been valuable in connecting people during the pandemic, but expressed concern over the spread of fake news and algorithms used by companies such as Facebook, now known as Meta.

“I’m hoping there will be some technical solutions that help these things,” Liskov said at the event.

In solving problems, Liskov added computer scientists must also consider the ethical implications of their solutions.

In 2008, Liskov received the prestigious Turing Award for her contributions to programming language and system design. At the time, Liskov discovered many of her graduate students — and one impolite internet commenter — did not fully understand the developments she had contributed to.

“The work that I had done … had become so ingrained in computer science that modern practitioners didn’t know that there was a time when it didn’t exist,” Liskov said at the event.

Liskov, one of the first women to receive a doctorate in computer science, also discussed the progress women have made in technical fields.

She noted when she was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, it was rare to see even one other woman in her classes. Upon her arrival at MIT in 1972, she said there were only 10 women on the faculty of almost 1,000.

“Many more women are going into computer science than there were a few years ago,” Liskov said at the event.

Graduate enrollment of women in computer science, however, has not improved as much, she noted.

While she noted she hasn’t experienced sexism partly due to her early renown, Liskov said at the event there were moments when she felt discouraged. Perseverance, she added, was important to her success.

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to negative signals,” Liskov said at the event. “I tend to go my own way.”

Contact Gabe Classon at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @GabeClasson.