An Interview with Professor Steve Ward

Steve Ward, professor of computer science and principal investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT

Steve Ward, professor of computer science in the MIT EECS and principal investigator in CSAIL

Q. You hold three degrees from MIT including a PhD in Computer Science awarded in 1974. As one of the inaugural doctoral CS students at MIT, what are your observations and reflections on the choice you made then and what you see for students in the field today?

Steve Ward: “I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been around, especially at a place like MIT, while computers evolved from a fledgling technology to a discipline and industry that dominates much of our thinking and our lives. Looking back through history, we find relatively brief periods of intense activity stimulated by some idea or discovery, separated by longer intervals of more incremental progress. The fact that my lifetime coincides with one of the exciting periods is simply dumb luck for which I’m eternally grateful.”

Q. Has living through one of these “exciting periods” impacted your approach to teaching?

Steve Ward: “Absolutely. It has driven home the difference between simply passing your technical skills to the next generation versus preparing students to do things you’ve never dreamed of. Today’s MIT graduates will be shaping a world whose possibilities nobody can anticipate. Our challenge as educators is providing the basic intellectual tools and self-assurance needed to invent the future, without perpetuating the hang-ups of the past.”

Q. As a practicing professor for the undergraduate class 6.004, Computation Structures, a class for which you are noted for the book of that name published in 1989, how do you find teaching students today as compared with several decades ago — when the class was first formulated?

Steve Ward: “6.004 is one of the “mature” courses offered by the Department. There have been continual evolutionary changes since I inherited its predecessor in 1980, but the basic coverage and educational mission remain largely the same. There are good and bad aspects of this maturity. On the negative side, it doesn’t have the “hot-off-the-press” currency of a course focused on bleeding edge technology. But there are positives: the course is pretty well debugged, including the ideas to be presented and the manner of their presentation.

Of course, technology has evolved in ways that impact the course. In its earlier days, each student would actually build a physical working computer out of TTL (a now-obsolete digital chip technology), using a “nerd kit” they could carry around, show off to their friends, etc. I loved the motivational aspect of using real hardware, which has been replaced in the current course by “virtual” construction using simulation technology.

But you asked how I find teaching students, and I have to say that it hasn’t changed that much. Teaching students was my main attraction to this career, and its still what keeps me going.”

Q.The text is noted on the website ‘Good Reads‘ with a bit of description: “Computation Structures contains a nice section on microcode, which is seldom discussed in most books. The text is clear and the exercises well chosen.” How has digital design changed (and therefore some aspects of teaching it) since the period in which you wrote this?

Steve Ward: “It sure has. We actually started writing the book in 1980, and it was used (in notes form) as a course text until – and considerably beyond – its publication as a text. The primary reason we stopped using it is because part of it focused on a now-obsolete approach to processor architecture — precisely the “microcode” identified by GoodReads.”

Q. Based on the brief biographical notes on your CSAIL profile, it looks like you are currently (or were?) involved in the ‘Curl project’ to build “a single, integrated authoring environment for the Web.” Could you elaborate on the current status of CURL? and point to any websites that might illustrate it? The CSAIL site on Curl makes it sound like an ideal tool for building web site content: “Curl is intended to be a gentle slope system, accessible to content creators at all skill levels ranging from authors new to the web to experienced programmers. By using a simple, uniform language syntax and semantics, Curl avoids the discontinuities experienced by current web users who have to juggle HTML, JavaScript, Java, Perl, etc. to create today’s exciting sites.”

Steve Ward: “I’m not sure what web site you’re looking at, but that information is VERY out-of-date! We started Curl in the mid 1990′s, spun off a company in 1998, and I’ve had virtually nothing to do with it during the past decade. It was a fun project and a very cool technology, but ultimately it didn’t have the impact or acceptance we’d have liked.”

Q. Why was that?

Steve Ward: “Because I couldn’t convince the more business-oriented interests running the company to give technology away, like Java and Python with which it was competing.”

Q. So if you’ve not worked on Curl, can you name something you HAVE worked on during the last decade?

Steve Ward: “Well, one set of ideas that we’ve been exploring for nearly a decade fits under a heading I call “Organic Computing” – alternative ways of building systems so that they behave more like organisms than like conventional computer systems.”

Q. Does that mean that they mate, fight with each other, and infect host organisms?

Steve Ward: “Perhaps all of those things! But the characteristic we’ve been exploring is that they have goals — models of the problems they are trying to solve, not just programs that embody some approach to their solution. The idea is that goal-oriented systems can try a new approach to satisfying their goals, if for some reason the current approach doesn’t seem to be working. It’s a way of building systems that can automatically adapt to changing conditions, such as the availability of new resources or failure of existing ones.”

Q. On the lighter (heavier?…or just right?) side, while searching online for materials that might give some clues in posing some questions for this ‘interview’, Philip Greenspun’s blog entry about The Steve Ward Diet aka the “Bang-Bang Servo Diet” appeared. Was this a topic of interest with your students back in 1980 when you apparently proposed it? At least one other blog refers to it– suggesting an iphone app that takes care of the graphing.

Steve Ward: “Actually, I think the idea is older than 1980. It started out as sort of a joke — a diet that REALLY WORKS, and I can PROVE IT using MATHEMATICS. I chanced to sit next to an executive of a major publishing company on a coast-to-coast flight, and somehow our small talk led to my telling him the idea. He immediately proposed that I write it up, and his company would publish it as one of those little pocket-size booklets that are sold at the checkout counters of supermarkets. He was actually quite persistent, and sent me follow-up emails. I of course declined his kind invitation. I was a very junior faculty member at the time, and suspected that the proposed publication wouldn’t add much to my tenure case. Besides, it would take some real creativity to fill more than a page or two with this simple idea (as Philip Greenspun notes).

Interestingly, I’ve told hundreds of people about the diet in the 3+ decades since its inception, and many people tell me that they follow some variant of it. I was amused to see the iPhone app, although slightly annoyed that they didn’t send me a free copy (and I’ll be damned if I’ll pay $2 for it!).”

Read more about Steve Ward.

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5 Responses to “An Interview with Professor Steve Ward”

  1. Kevin says:

    Wow…Dr. Ward is amazing.

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  3. @kevin

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  5. Adam C says:

    Great interview, I love this guy.

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