The [public] schools educate everyone, whether they're wealthy or not wealthy. We need to bolster poor school districts so they have opportunities to develop their access to technology.
Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Computer Sciences Allen Tucker has been instructing students in the field of Natural Sciences at Bowdoin since 1988. He recently sat down with Faculty Focus interviewer Katrina Mitchell '00 to talk about baseball, Y2k, and his family.
At the beginning of the interview, he mentions that he's been trying to schedule a physical therapy appointment to treat a muscle he tore in a faculty/staff baseball game.
FF: So were you a baseball player in college yourself?
AT: Yes. I went to Wesleyan and played baseball and basketball. In fact, we had a couple of good years. I played some baseball after, but never professionally.
FF: What happened at the Bowdoin game?
AT: I was playing first base and stretching for a wide throw from third base. I wasn't wearing cleats and my heel slipped out. I pretty much did the splits. People said it really looked like I knew what I was doing until I rolled over in pain (laughs).
It's fun to get faculty and staff together in a non-academic situation. I think we've made a lot of progress on campus with doing stuff like that. Since the frats went out, and the house system has come in, faculty and students and staff have had a chance to get together outside of the classroom. There are neutral spaces to enjoy each other's company without academic pretense. It's important for them to model each other and exchange personal as well as academic and intellectual ideas. It fosters a good sense of community.
FF: What do you do within your department to get professors and students interacting in a non-academic climate?
AT: Every Friday, we have lunch with students. Professor Eric Chown took 38 students up to Augusta to see Star Wars the night it opened. Those kinds of things add value to your experience at Bowdoin. It adds value to faculty to know students on a personal level, rather than just an intellectual level.
Many times we have students who work in teams on projects. Computer lab is a science where you have lab partners and collaborate in classes. At the end of each year, students discuss and demonstrate projects to the rest of their class. It's a different kind of experience than just writing computer programs and hacking code and being a "computer nerd" (laughs).
FF: Did you know that you wanted to do computer science when you were young? Did anyone take it seriously?
AT: I graduated from Wesleyan in '63 and it was not a field at that time. I was a math major. But computer programming was becoming a profession and I went out and worked at a company in Worcester, MA. I began to read about the emergence of it in the late 60s and I applied to the three graduate programs that existed at that time. I got into Northwestern and ended up earning one of the first Phds in computer science. I guess I got interested in it all at Wesleyan when I would spend time in a computer lab trying to figure out how to make a computer run. It was fascinating, interesting, and an exciting challenge.
FF: Why do you still find it exciting today?
AT: Today, it's exciting for a variety of different reasons. I struggle to learn and keep up with students, but I share my excitement with them. They have tremendous opportunities as graduates to go into Ph.D. programs or go into the industry and work for corporations. It's becoming more and more worldwide as the Internet grows. A surprising number of our majors do study away because it is something that is viable and complementary to their computer science experience here.
The international possibilities are tremendous. The idea that computers and networks can help unify cultures and people is an exciting prospect. You can read now about technology in third world countries and how they adopt it and how they can jump a whole generation of technological progress. Computer networks can be established in countries like China and Africa and the Middle East. Indonesia, for example, has developed a very advanced technological structure. So I guess that is one of the greatest, most exciting things about computers today.
FF: What is dangerous about the spread of technology through computers?
AT: What's dangerous is that it will continue to empower the people who have power and separate them from people who don't. So, it's very important for us as a culture to think about technology as something that can build equity among people. I'm worried about the people who don't have wealth because it's important that everyone have access to technology--not just the people who can afford it. I believe we need to adopt a social policy focused on the idea of equity.
One of the things we need to do is make sure that computers and networks are pervasive through public schools. That's our last and best chance for reaching a majority of the population. The schools educate everyone, whether they're wealthy or not wealthy. We need to bolster poor school districts so they have opportunities to develop their access to technology. Because people like students coming from Bowdoin will represent the power and will be distributing wealth, they are responsible for making sure that there is equity in technology. You always read the clich that 'knowledge is power' and digital knowledge is just as important. Bowdoin kids are going to get their fair share--it's almost their birthright--but it's the kids who never see technology that I am worried about.
FF: In your computer science classes, do you try and address these social issues?
AT: It's very hard to have a specific class on it, because we don't have a large department. But we still try to engage students with ideas about the social impact of technology. We talk about software piracy, viruses, what the worldview is on them...
The administration just did approve a fourth faculty position, so we will be running with one more person from now on. Bowdoin recognized that computer science can be doing more if it has the faculty resources to do more. The administration endowed a new chair, The Bass Chair of [Natural] Science[s]. The president gave it to me a couple of weeks ago. I think that's an indication that the college is supporting computer science at the level it should be supporting it. It's a big change from the time when David Garnick and I started the department 11 years ago.
FF: So overall, you believe that the Internet will have a positive impact on the world?
AT: I did a debate with Professor McEwan on the future of the Internet and he took a negative view and I took a positive view. We had the same view in the end, though--that the Internet is only a reflection of the larger society that created it. I hope we will get more into the Internet as something that would emulate a world knowledge base...that everyone could tap it to improve their own condition. It's pretty idealistic, but it's a goal worth keeping in focus.
FF: What have you focused on in your primary research?
AT: My main interest is with computer languages and with natural languages, such as English and French, that people speak. The challenge is to design programs that allow computers to understand natural languages so you don't have to use a keyboard or a mouse. Then, it can understand what you're saying and respond appropriately. Recently, I've been doing a lot of reading and work on formal methods for modeling language understanding and modeling programming languages themselves. I've written two books on programming languages. It's one of the great scientific problems--computer understanding of language. I have a fellowship this summer to go to New Zealand to study this.
FF: What kind of fellowship is it?
AT: It's the Erskine Fellowship at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. I will give a series of lectures in language programming. People have asked me why I would want to go to New Zealand during the winter, but my wife and I are excited about the trip.
FF: What about this Y2k business?
AT: Two things--a) Y2k is overrated and b) I helped create it (laughs). I was a programmer in the 60s and in those days, computer memory was so scarce that saving two digits in dates was important. Today, memory is not so scarce, but the software programs we wrote were not systematically upgraded. People were just wishing it away and hoping 2000 wouldn't come.
What they've done in the tech industry to deal with it now is to hire elderly computer programmers and pull them out of retirement. They are the only people who understand those programs. They're making better money as consultants today than they ever did as programmers (laughs).
FF: What do you think will happen in Y2k?
AT: People have ways of surviving. People will get to know each other and go back to living more primitively for a while. Y2k is not something people can't adapt to.
Still, in some areas, we aren't ready. I would not suggest flying through the skies at midnight.
FF: If you could give one piece of advice about Y2k, what would it be?
AT: I would stockpile extra prescription drugs...not many people know to do that. The supply chains often involve overseas sources and the supply chains may be temporarily interrupted.
FF: So you think most problems will occur outside of the United States?
AT: The international community is much less prepared than Americans because most of the software it uses was in fact designed here--so our technical people understand how it works better than other people who have bought or stolen it from our country. I worry about Russia and the software that controls their missiles. I don't know how much they're on top of the problem. I'm not worried about our missiles because there exists a clear chain of command that requires human intervention. Our missiles are not programmed to be autonomous decision makers. I hope that's the case in Russia. I think it probably is...I don't want to create a great deal of alarm.
FF: What do you think the most major problems will be in the United States?
AT: I think more agrarian areas will be more adaptable than cities. Subways might misfunction and people will have to walk. Basically, people will have to take a little step backward to a simpler, less technological way of living. I can't predict any sort of specific things. There will probably just be little glitches here and there--nothing that's critical to the quality of life.
FF: What do you like to do outside of Bowdoin?
AT: I have two kids who are adopted. My wife is an elementary school teacher. She taught elementary school French 25 years ago when languages were pretty important. But that's dried up. Now, she teaches fifth grade at Longfellow school and has a terrific reputation as a tremendous teacher. She really teaches kids how to write in a very disciplined way. She gives them a lot of attention and cares about them as people. Kids come back when they graduate from high school and say that she helped them so much with teaching them to write. She is very much in demand with parents who want their kids to be well-educated.
We both have done a lot of advocacy work for the adoption of special needs children.
My wife testified before the Senate committee on child rights. As a result of community work, a great deal of legislation passed to support adoption of special needs children. It made it much more feasible to adopt these children than to keep placing them in different foster homes. Adoption makes for a better quality of life. All of the legislation was passed in 1980, but unfortunately, President Reagan took money out of social programs and built up defense. There was great legislation on the books but no money behind it. Today things are much more normalized, though.
FF: So, were your adopted children both considered special needs?
AT: Yes, they were both considered special needs when we adopted them at two and three. Now, one is 26 and one is 29. They both had physical handicaps. Our daughter had cerebral palsy--her right side didn't work particularly well. Our goal was to adopt them and mainstream them into society. We didn't want to adopt someone who would have a short and miserable life. We wanted children that we could work with and give them the opportunities that they needed. We wanted to get them through college as far as they wanted to go. We had a daughter who had been labeled at two as mentally retarded, but she ended up at Wesleyan, got her master's degree at Purdue, and is now an environmental consultant in Washington, D.C. Our son is an elementary school teacher. We are very delighted. The kids are terrific.
FF: How did you first become concerned about special needs children?
AT: We were flower children, products of the sixties. In those days, there was a lot of social change and consciousness about the human condition. A lot of people were reaching out in different ways to help other people. The Civil Rights Movement was the most dramatic example. We saw it as an opportunity to give some of our blessings back to the world. We were among coalitions of people for parents of adoptable children.
We were products of our times...we listened to ideals of our times, lived ideals of our times.