Q&A with Professor Hal Abelson of MIT

Interviewed by Leslie Yeh Johnson, University Relations, Google

Hal Abelson

LYJ: How do you find interesting problems to work on?

HA: I think about trying to do things that make a difference. It’s a little hard to describe – you think about structural forces and where you can exert some technology and some savvy to actually change things. I'm not the kind of person who does little incremental stuff and writes the 13th technical paper about something that nobody cares about; that isn't very deep. I prefer things that have a lot more impact, and influence on people – that’s actually one of the reasons why I came to Google. It’s a place that right now has enormous leverage to do things.

LYJ: So what are the areas that you're finding most compelling right now?

HA: At MIT I work a lot on privacy, and on web standards that have to do with privacy. It’s undergoing this big shift. Google, of course, has enormous privacy issues, although I haven't been particularly involved in that. I’ve been working on an education project, which is another place where, again, there’s tremendous potential for Google to do stuff. What we're working on, having passed the gauntlet of Google’s trademark lawyers, is called App Inventor for Android, and the idea is to make it easy for beginning computer science students, non-computer science students, maybe eventually high school students, to build mobile apps. Right now we are thinking about where this project wants to go when it grows up. Even where it wants to go come 2010. There’s a range, from focusing it more on education, to focusing it more broadly – i.e. making it so anybody can easily make Android apps.

LYJ: How are various schools participating?

HA: We started recruiting schools last March, because you need a long lead-time if you want to do curriculum stuff. So right now there are 12 schools, and each is teaching a small experimental course using Android phones. The students are doing the apps, and they focus on different things. Harvard, for example, is maybe the most traditional, in that they're thinking about it in their introductory programming course. At the other end of the spectrum, Indiana University is doing a course that’s really for nursing students; for them it’s not about the programming, it’s about: could we design and personalize an application that has to do with the nursing profession? And there’s a whole range in between. Wellesley is thinking about the impact of the internet, so they're trying to do a project where there’s an electronic voting application, in which there are things you can vary, like whether you can vote anonymously, or whether the person running the poll can figure out who voted, and things like that. What they're hoping to do is let the Wellesley students tweak the parameters and kind of understand what the issues are. So it’s all over the map.

LYJ: That’s really cool. So after the semester is over, do you follow up with the courses?

HA: We're following up with the courses right now. We're actually very, very hands-on; we're visiting the schools and talking with them, working with them, helping them to develop particular apps, and the answer to the question about what happens next semester is: "Ask me in a few weeks." Let’s say it’s an open source project and everybody has a good time. After that, well, a lot of these schools want to continue teaching the courses. So continuing on from that, we could really expand this program.

LYJ: What would you like App Inventor to become? Do you see it as an education piece?

HA: The problem is there are too many good things. One is: it’s a major way of introducing students to the idea of having power over computers – people carry around laptops now, but those aren't going to be the computers that people use two years from now; it’s all going to be smart phones or who knows, a year from now maybe we're going to be talking about netbooks that are about to come out. The notion that laptops are what you should be introducing students to in terms of programming seems like the usual archaic thing that education does. So that’s one. Another is: we can go way broader than just education, and say hey look, the cool thing about these phones is that anybody should be able to personalize them and personalize applications with them. So I'm sort of somewhere on that spectrum, but you know, any of those choices is good.

LYJ: What are your predictions for the future of computer science?

HA: Hmm, I don't even know what the recent past of computer science is, much less the future. So if I stand on my soapbox, I must say I believe the future of computer science is information science. Cornell has a nice way of saying it – they talk about computer science inside the box and outside the box. So inside the box is the compiler stuff that makes it work, and the detailed kinds of operating systems, and all of that; and outside the box is the impact that it has on the world. I think that computer science is getting dragged by its ears into understanding that the fundamental problem is the impact that it has on the world. Faculty need to figure out that they're working on the problems of 20 years ago. It’s funny, some people at Google kind of understand this. There are all these people who work on distributed computing, and yet there are these wonderful things you do inside Google. Folks think they understand what scalability means as a problem, and they don't – the issues are different and bigger and you haven't even seen the phenomenon people say they're studying. So to me, the future of computer science really is information.

LYJ: So then, what advice would you give to students who are aspiring to go into computer science, or who are getting their PhDs now?

HA: For students going into computer science, I would push them to not run away from the social impact, because it’s really going to be about the impact of computing. I had students two years ago who did a project which is way more obvious now than it was two years ago; it turns out you can tell people are gay by analyzing their social networks. So everybody says, "Well, yeah." But two years ago, that was a big deal. Even to most people in the world right now, that’s a big deal. Thinking about the real impact on organizations is what people here are kind of dragged into thinking about. People here don't actually think about it very well, even though they're very very smart… well, some people do. I mean, Google actually does have people like Jane Horvath, and Nicole Wong, who as far as I'm concerned are the very best people in the world to think about this stuff. But most people sort of don't. I think you want to become a leader like that; you want to be technically superb, but you also need to understand the larger environment in which this is happening, and the consequences of what you're doing – not even in a goody-goody sense, but in terms of making things that are really going to have impact.

LYJ: What do you think that translates into? Taking liberal arts classes as well as computer science, or getting out there and having other experiences? How do you think you get that point of view?

HA: It’s partly having a life, and realizing that that exists. But it’s also really thinking about political structures – politics, organizations, and so forth. But again, on the technical side, computer science is being slowly dragged towards understanding that people need to know about statistics, from all sorts of points of view, even on the totally technical side. You know, machine learning has had a huge impact on the math requirements of only the most progressive places. The other places are still doing eighteenth century mathematics that was relevant to… I'm not quite sure what. But statistics and thinking about large data sources and the implications of those are things that everybody should know -- Hal Varian says the same thing.

LYJ: And your advice to PhD students?

HA: Well, a little bit of the same. For a lot of PhD students it’s just too late. Although, you will get job. A lot of PhD students also really do have these interests. Once you're at the PhD level, and you’ve got a technical background, you shouldn't be afraid to explore these other things, because, you know, that’s the leadership opportunity.

LYJ: What would you challenge Google to do in a research sense, or maybe the larger sense? You said Google could have a big impact in education. What other areas do you think Google should be looking at?

HA: Google is already, I think, transforming civilization. I mean, in a very deep sense. Let me explain – you weren't in Boston, and I wasn't even in Boston, before they built the Prudential Center. When they built the Prudential Center, the city of Boston changed, in that suddenly, wherever you were in Boston, you could look up and see this thing, and you'd say: "Wow, I'm actually in the city and I can locate myself." The city seemed like one place. Before then, Boston seemed like this much more chaotic, different, not-one-place kind of thing. It was a real change of consciousness in the city. So, it may be a weird analogy, but Google’s kind of doing that to humanity.

Google has become the place where everyone can look. When you get used to enormous diversity, there’s this view that people have that cuts across boundaries – it changes what it’s like to be in civilization. Now you can sit in some internet cafe in Africa, and you can see what’s going on. Or I can see a picture of what the traffic looks like outside of here. And that’s just weird. So I think what Google needs to do is come to grips with the fact that this is happening – because at the moment, Google’s kind of stumbling into it. I think, even in terms of Google’s own profit, there are just enormous, enormous opportunities and issues around understanding what it’s like when you are an architect of the information space everyone lives in. It’s like being an urban architect; you change the environment, society, what goes on, what people do… Google has the opportunity to change that, and at an enormous scale. You know, it’s doing that, it’s doing it not quite consciously enough, it’s doing it with not quite enough study of what’s going on…but that’s what I would be looking at. Just say, for whatever good or bad reason, the people here are at this place of enormous leverage. You know, something like the books project is just a wonderful idea. And when that takes off, and I do believe it will, that changes the way people relate to the written word. You have things that have been going on for three thousand years and now suddenly, pretty much everybody can see those written words not as individual pages or books or volumes or things, but ways to cut across the whole corpus of them. There’s a whole, completely different way of looking at the sum of human knowledge. So to answer you – I don't know what the particular research questions should be, but when you put it against this background, I try to think about the amount of knowledge; that’s just a wonderful opportunity.

LYJ: So we should be thinking about these things upfront rather than finding out about them in retrospect …

HA: Well, you can't always think about them; I mean, it’s too hard to predict and no one’s done it before. But you can put the way you're thinking about it in the context of that grandeur, because it really is grand, and I just say: "Wow, I could be doing these things, and I could have visions and ambitions that are really on that scale."

LYJ: Do you have a random fact about yourself that is maybe surprising, or that people don't know about you that you'd like to share with us?

HA: Well, Wikipedia never quite got beyond Richard Stallman living on the couch in my office. I don't know… I play clarinet, or at least I used to – I stopped that a couple of years ago. Also… I grew up on a chicken farm in New Jersey, about 50 miles from New York.

LYJ: Is it still a chicken farm?

HA: I don't think so. They used to bury dead chickens and dead mafiosi …

LYJ: How do you go from a chicken farm to computer science?

HA: Well, I was always interested in math, physics and science. I got a job at the Lakehurst Naval Air Base, where they had an IBM 709 – one of the things where we had to punch paper tape – and I was sort of a smart kid, so I messed around in Fortran some. Then when I went to Princeton I became "The PL/I Kid" because all these first-years had been told by IBM that the future was PL/I, and they were busy trying to convert their Fortran programs into programs which were, of course, much worse because they were in PL/I. So I hung around the Princeton computer center and just kind of got into computing doing that. I started doing all this useless stuff, because at Princeton in those days, they were playing with this radical idea called "timesharing"; they would take the computer down a of couple times a week and experiment with this timesharing operating system, and people did completely worthless things… For instance, I would play with this thing where you'd actually use the computer to type your papers and print them out, much to the chagrin of the astrophysicists there who complained bitterly about what a waste of power it was using this great computer for things like making documents. Then when I came to MIT, like most good places, the students were really going and taking over buildings on campus. So when I showed up there, one of the student groups, Students for a Democratic Society, had occupied the President’s office – I went to check it out. I was telling people how I was looking for a cool place to work, and a friend of mine said, "Well why don't you go over to this place called the artificial intelligence lab? They do cool things …" – that’s pretty much how I got into it.

Biography

Harold (Hal) Abelson is the Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, a fellow of the IEEE, and is a founding director, both of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation.

Abelson holds an A.B. degree from Princeton University and a Ph.D. degree in mathematics from MIT. In 1992, Abelson was designated as one of MIT's six inaugural MacVicar Faculty Fellows, in recognition of his significant and sustained contributions to teaching and undergraduate education. Abelson was recipient in 1992 of the Bose Award (MIT's School of Engineering teaching award). Abelson is also the winner of the 1995 Taylor L. Booth Education Award given by IEEE Computer Society, cited for his continued contributions to the pedagogy and teaching of introductory computer science.