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Learning Curve

How Comp-Sci went from fad to must-have major

Kirk Carapezza Jun 16, 2014
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The demand for computer science majors is booming. Even students at liberal arts institutions are itching to learn how to write code and develop artificial intelligence.

It’s hard to believe that the field wasn’t considered a serious academic discipline back in the 1960s.

Joel Moses has been teaching computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 47 years. But when he first arrived on campus in 1963, it was to be a founding member of Project MAC.

“Machine Aided Cognition, which is another way of saying artificial intelligence. And Multi Access Computers, which is another way of saying time sharing,” Moses explained.

Project MAC marked the beginning of the formal study of computer scienceAt first, administrators were skeptical. They viewed computer science as just a passing fad.

“We had to prove ourselves,” Moses said. “And we did!”

Not only did Moses and his colleagues create time sharing, they automated calculus problems.

“People were pleasantly surprised that a computer could do that as well as humans,” Moses said.

Then, in the 1970s, MIT’s Lab for Computer Science was born. MIT researchers developed some of the basic programming that led to fax machines, e-mail, and the complex operating systems we all take for granted today. Computer science was finally making its mark.

“There was a turning point,” Moses said. “Sometime in the 80s I thought it was OK to major in computer science.”

Today, one-third of all MIT engineering students are computer science majors. And the number of undergrads taking advanced courses in the field is growing.

We have to reach further with equipment and we can only do this with computer science,” said PhD candidate Dehann Fourie.

Inside the lab, Fourie is working to program a robot that can both explore the deepest reaches of the ocean and be smart enough to know what it’s found.

Ten thousand meters down, you are sort of in this dark abyss,” Fourie said. “Now you have to go do something useful and that doesn’t just happen by itself.”

“All these things people have talked about for decades are coming to fruition and the computers are getting better and better,” said Moses. 

But he admits it’s still early days: computer science is just beginning to really tackle speech and facial recognition and to advance artificial intelligence by figuring our how the human brain works.

Listen to Kirk’s extended interview with Joel Moses:

MIT is celebrating 50 years of computer science and the birth of a new field. To commemorate the ocassion, the university has compiled a list of 50 ways Project MAC transformed computer science.

 

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