“People are at the heart of the story of technology,” said CHM President and CEO Dan’l Lewin, as he kicked off the annual Fellow Awards ceremony this year. And CHM’s 2023 Fellows certainly are remarkable people.
Rodney Brooks, Thomas E. Kurtz, and Barbara Liskov were honored for their outstanding merit and significant contributions to the advancement of computing and the evolution of the digital age. They join 95 other remarkable individuals in the CHM Hall of Fellows.
Tom Stuermer, senior managing director of data and AI at Accenture, expressed an optimistic anticipation of technology's evolving narrative as he acknowledged the Fellows' contributions. Headline sponsor Accenture’s sustained collaboration with CHM represents a “shared duty to steer these transformations and these forces towards a brighter future for us all,” he said.
A video tribute to the Fellows included remarks from science and technology journalist John Markoff, who noted that all three simplified computing with their work and thus extended the reach of the field from a narrow circle to a much broader community, democratizing it in the process. Megan Smith, who served as the 3rd chief technology officer of the US, noted that people from all over the world can now see themselves in the industry. And, venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson lauded the honorees for taking on bold challenges and inspiring those who want to see change in the world.
Cohost and CHM Trustee Eileen Fagan introduced Rodney Brooks, who has dedicated his life to pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence and robotics in a career that’s been “a testament to relentless innovation.” His contributions include new methods of robot perception, enabling machines to sense and interact with their environment in ways previously unimaginable. His research has influenced applications in space, health care, autonomous vehicles, and other areas and continues to shape the future of robotics.
In a brief documentary created from CHM's recent oral history interview with Brooks, he spoke about his life and career.
A former doctoral student of Brooks, and now dean and professor at MIT, Cynthia Breazeal presented the award to Brooks “For the advancement of robotics and consideration of its implications for humanity.” She remembered that Brooks asked his students how much computational power they thought a fly possessed and noted that “nature, not symbols, was Rodney’s muse.” Despite intense criticism, he took a bottom-up approach to research, believing that intelligent life could emerge from simple, interactive, specialized behaviors. A fearless advocate of women in the field, he seeks to inspire others to do good.
In his acceptance speech, Brooks shared memories of working on robots at MIT and his thoughts on the current hype around AI. He traces his success and outlook on life back to his childhood.
Brooks is an optimist and still fearless. He is currently at his sixth startup, working hard on a new class of robots and believes there's much more invention to be done and fun to be had.
Dan’l Lewin introduced Thomas E. Kurtz, best known as a co-creator of the BASIC programming language, which played a pivotal role in making computers more accessible. The development of the Dartmouth time-sharing system revolutionized how computers were used in education. A brief documentary explained how.
By video, Bill Gates presented the award to Kurtz “For the co-invention of the BASIC programming language, which brought the power of computers to beginners around the world, and the Dartmouth Timesharing System.” Gates remarked that he did all his early programming in BASIC and a form of it was included in Microsoft computers from the very beginning.
Accepting the award for Kurtz, who was unable to attend in person, was his granddaughter, data scientist Sarai Mazyck. She shared his memories of traveling once a week from New Hampshire to Boston to have punch cards processed on MIT’s new computer. That ended when Dartmouth got its own computer in 1959, and Kurtz and John Kemeny collaborated to bridge the divide between the sciences and humanities by encouraging liberal arts students to “have a go at computing.” That was the motivation for developing a simple, easy-to-use programming language as well as a time-sharing system.
Kurtz summed up the two guiding principles of his work: 1.) systems should be extremely easy for the casual user; and, 2.) always choose simplicity over efficiency.
Eileen Fagan introduced Barbara Liskov, whose groundbreaking work laid the foundation for many software systems and elevated the principles of modularity, extensibility, and robustness in software design. She was among the first women to earn a doctorate in computer science in the US and only the second woman to receive the Turing Award.
Liskov's groundbreaking career was explored in a short documentary.
Tech entrepreneur and Chair Emerita of the MIT Corporation Diane Greene presented the award to Liskov “For practical and theoretical contributions to programming language and system design that continue to shape modern computing.” She noted that Liskov saw the leverage in making it easier for everyone to build software and solved limitations in abstraction and distributed computing, as well as developing protocols for dealing with malicious attacks, among other contributions.
Liskov accepted the award, and in her remarks credited a “lucky break” for the start of her career in 1961. A Berkeley graduate with a degree in math, she was offered a job as a programmer at a time when she didn’t know computers existed. She discovered a field she loved that fit her skills. Another lucky break didn’t look like one at the time.
Liskov remarked that she and others in the field have had a huge impact on people, that she believes has been mostly for the good. Looking to the future, she thinks that many issues arising around AI have technical solutions that can mitigate problems like bias and misinformation.
The event closed by noting that the three honorees’ words of advice to the next generation could be combined in a powerful statement full of wisdom and life experience: Through the beauty and power of mathematics (Kurtz) we can strive to be fearless (Brooks) and stay open to the full breadth (Liskov) of opportunities around us.
CHM Fellows are nominated in a public process and selected by a distinguished committee that includes past Fellow Award honorees. Learn more.