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March 12, 2013

Pioneering Researchers Take Students on Tour of Computing

By Sarah Nightingale

Qatar LecturesIn 1952, IBM developed its first electronic computer, the 701. During the next three years, IBM sold 19 such machines to research laboratories, aircraft companies and the U.S. government.

A lot has changed since then.

This spring, members of the Carnegie Mellon in Qatar campus took a tour of the information age through the seminar course "Perspectives in Computer Architecture," and a distinguished lecture series open to the wider community. Some of their guides were among the pioneers of computer science.

Among them was Chuck Thacker, a technical fellow at Microsoft Research who helped design and build the Alto, considered to be the first modern personal computer.

Thacker also co-invented the Ethernet local area network, a technology for connecting computers that is still used today. In 2009, Thacker received the Turing Award, which is recognized as the Nobel Prize of Computing.

Thacker described to students during the course of two lectures how computers emerged from a few post-war laboratories to become an indispensable part of our lives. He spoke about the technologies that have enabled computers to become smaller, faster and more usable. He also highlighted important challenges, including a slowing down in the progress as computer scientists begin to push up against physical laws.

Raj Reddy, the Moza Bint Nasser University Professor at Carnegie Mellon's Pittsburgh campus, helped to organize the course with local faculty and taught two lectures on the origins of computers. Reddy, who has been a Carnegie Mellon faculty member since 1969, won the Turing Award in 1994 for his pioneering research on artificial intelligence.

"Raj has been an integral part of the development and continued success of the Qatar campus. With helping us organize this course, Raj was able to connect our students with some of the most important contributors to the information age," said Majd Sakr, associate teaching professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon Qatar. Mohammad Hammoud, a post-doctoral fellow at the Qatar campus, also contributed two lectures to the series.

Joining the group were other distinguished researchers, including Daniel P. Siewiorek, the Buhl University Professor of Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Gordon Bell, one of the inaugural faculty in Carnegie Mellon's Computer Science Department, where he was a professor of computer science and engineering from 1966 to 1972. The university awarded him an honorary degree in 2010. Considered the father of the minicomputer and a pioneer in high-performance and parallel computing, Bell worked at the forefront of the "minicomputer revolution," which brought smaller and simpler computers within the reach of a larger and more diverse range of consumers.

"In me, you're getting a live historian," Bell said. "I've been very close to some of these technologies, so I can give a personal perspective."

Inspiring Next Generation
Kenrick Fernandes, a junior in computer science, relished the opportunity to learn about important developments from people who were immersed in the issues of the day.

"It was humbling to find out that a lot of this technology has been around since before we were born, and it has just become more developed over time," Fernandes said. "For example, we think of parallelism - the idea of combining computers to solve some of the world's great problems - as a relatively new idea, but Gordon Bell has been working on this since the 1970s."

This spring's seminar course wasn't the only opportunity for students to interact one-on-one with renowned computer scientists.

Takeo Kanade, the U.A. and Helen Whitaker University Professor at Carnegie Mellon and one of the world's foremost researchers in robotics, taught an introductory course on computer vision.

Kanade, whose research on artificial vision has applications in autonomous vehicles, facial recognition, medicine, digital cameras and many other areas, enjoyed being a direct link between students and technologies.

"Students often see a theorem or a technology in a textbook and wonder 'how was that invented?' But to the people who have invented them - people who have a lot of experience - it's a natural flow of thinking. It's a great experience for students to be able to talk directly to people and find out how they did what they did," Kanade said.

In addition, Thacker, Reddy, Bell and Kanade each delivered distinguished lectures to faculty, staff, students and the wider community.

"These speakers have been inspirational to our students and younger faculty members. I am delighted to have hosted them on campus and hope they will join us again in the coming years," said Ilker Baybars, dean of Carnegie Mellon Qatar.

From left, Chuck Thacker, Raj Reddy and Gordon Bell were among recent computer science giants who lectured at Carnegie Mellon Qatar in recent weeks.