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Universal Literacy?a Challenge For Computing in the 21st Century

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What would happen if you asked 50 successful female computer scientists about the future?

As we approached the new century, the last years were full of visionary exercises—attempts to predict, state, or prognosticate a future for computing. Only rarely were women’s voices heard unless it was to comment on their rarity. What do women computer scientists foresee as the future of computing? What do our most successful women believe we should do in this new millennium? What are the most important challenges that face us? What problems should we attack and why? And do women approach the future differently from the computing field as a whole?

These are hard questions to answer. Large numbers of senior women participate in decision-making bodies that drive the field’s future, but they participate as individual or minority voices. As a result, it is difficult to identify patterns or understand whether women are driving (or attempting to drive) the field in any specific directions. So, we decided to ask. The results surprised us. The results changed the way we think of computing and the role that women play in the field. The results might change the way you think, too. Finally, the results will challenge institutions to review their ways of defining their futures and goals.

Last September, 50 senior and successful technical women from the computing field in industry, academia, and government from the U.S., Canada, and Ireland met to explore their perspectives on the future of computing. The meeting was unprecedented. The women who attended are nearly all from technical backgrounds and have risen to senior ranks either by continuing in technical roles or by moving into executive or administrative roles. These women represent the full range of technical areas. They are professors, department chairs, and deans. They are directors and fellows, executives, and company founders. They drive research directions in universities, and development and investments in corporations. They influence the direction of research investments by governments.

For one day, the participants explored four questions:

  • What are the most important technical issues for the next 10 years?
  • What are the most important issues to be addressed?
  • How must computing and IT education change to meet the needs of the future?
  • What can the most senior women in the field do to address the issues that everyone is talking about?

The results challenge the entire computing field to rethink and expand the way we approach the future, to prioritize our projects, to teach our students, and to inspire the creation of fabulous new technologies. They also surprised and energized the participants who had no idea they would find so much synergy and agreement.

What do women computer scientists foresee as the future of computing?

What was the surprise for the participants? Simply that the group decided to turn the creative process on its head. As a field, computing has been driven by technical or scientific goals. The great challenges have been framed in terms of the technology we want to create—the fastest, smallest, hottest, biggest, or coolest. Start-ups, research labs, and universities work to meet those challenges—often generating technologies searching for uses and users.

Now imagine our field expands so that we also drive the research and the creation of technology by what people need and want. Imagine valuing a technology based on the degree to which it successfully addresses a societal challenge instead of being one of those “-ests” mentioned earlier. Imagine the societal challenge driving the investigation and opening up wild new areas that would have never been explored. Imagine!

This vision emerged repeatedly throughout the day, springing up in every session, gathering momentum in each conversation. As the day proceeded, the summit participants considered a variety of challenges with the potential of improving human life, and driving extraordinary technical invention. By the end of the day, the vision had coalesced around a first challenge: the achievement of universal literacy. The literacy challenge is an ideal first project for many reasons. The problems of literacy exist in every country and hamper progress in every societal area from health to education to the environment to economic growth. Literacy is an area where there is clear evidence that computing can help. Literacy is an area where effective solutions will only be found by bringing together expertise from many different noncomputing areas (for example, education in developing countries, linguistics, language education, anthropology, psychology) and from many computing areas (for example, educational technology, low-power electronics, robust electronics, human-computer interaction, visual languages, natural-language processing).

Literacy is an area where a wide range of exciting research problems spring to mind immediately. What forms of literacy and modes of interaction are required and desired by different groups, different cultures, different ages, different stages of literacy? How can the people to be served be brought into the process of creating the right solution? What kinds of devices can be used in different locations from cities to deserts to jungles? How can governmental and educational support for these technologies be created? How can these technologies be delivered? Can the current research push in multilinguality be used to bootstrap a research program in literacy?

By starting from the need and working to the solution, we will not be shoehorning inappropriate solutions into important needs. We will let the critical issues of literacy drive innovation. In addition, if the real value is to solve a societal problem rather than just to invent for invention’s sake, then finding an incredibly wonderful new use for an existing invention is a great success.

Do women approach the future differently from the computing field as a whole?

Too often, the ways of inventing, learning, and creating in computing, and the ways of teaching students to do these things, have been to create technologies and then try to understand their uses and users. We have educated thousands of developers, engineers, and researchers who see their roles as technology inventors and only a few who start by understanding situations and people and let that drive the creation of technologies. By presenting the major challenges of computing as technical challenges, we have lost the interest of many brilliant technical minds—often female—because their interest is in using that brilliance to solve real problems rather than creating technology for technology’s sake.

That 50 successful and diverse women from across computing, most of whom did not know each other, came together and found substantial common ground was inspiring. That their perspectives for ways computing, education, and policy can overlap in the future was amazing. That they decided to develop the first “Grand Societal Challenge for Computing: Universal Literacy” is phenomenal. Their goal is to establish a multinational, multidisciplinary research initiative to make significant progress in addressing literacy issues in the developing and developed world through the research, development, and deployment of information technology approaches. This is work that will involve the entire field and will hopefully draw many new and diverse participants to think of computing as a choice.

As much as I appreciate the honor of being asked to predict the future, I shall decline. I have the notion that if you want to ask about the future, ask young people, not the people responsible for where we are now.
—Ivan Sutherland, computer graphics pioneer, responding to an invitation to participate in this issue

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