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October 31, 2013: People of ACM: Calvin C. (Kelly) Gotlieb

Today's Topic: People of ACM: Calvin C. (Kelly) Gotlieb

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Calvin C. (Kelly) Gotlieb, called the "Father of Computing" in Canada, was a member of the first Canadian team to design and construct digital computers and to provide computing services. He co-founded the Computation Centre at the University of Toronto, where he established the first university credit course on computing in Canada. He founded the first graduate department of Computer Science in Canada, at the University of Toronto. He received his MA and PhD degrees there, and is currently UT's Professor Emeritus in Computer Science and in the Faculty of Information Studies. He has over 100 publications in computer science and information processing, and has co-authored four books.

Gotlieb has dedicated much of his professional work to the promotion of information science and technology. A consultant to the United Nations on Computer Technology and Development, he helped found the Canadian Information Processing Society in 1958, and was its president from 1960 to 1961.

An ACM Fellow, Gotlieb received the Outstanding Contribution to ACM Award for his 20-year service as chair or co-chair of the ACM Awards Committee. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the British Computer Society, and a recipient of the Isaac L. Auerbach Medal from the International Federation of Information Processing Societies and the Order of Canada award.

As a pioneering proponent of the importance of ethics and professional standards in computing, how optimistic are you that we can successfully manage the hazards of cyberattacks and their impact on our privacy and security?

Cyberattacks and attempts to counter them will always be a cat and mouse game, not only in our profession, but whenever secure communication is needed or wanted. For now, I think secure codes can always be invented so that the attempts to break them will be unacceptably long. But admittedly, if and when quantum computers come into their own, encryption, based on any mathematical algorithm, will become much less secure.

The earliest method of sending encrypted messages between two persons was to agree verbally on where, in some long book, the encryption was to start. This method will always work, but of course it does not apply if or when more than a very few persons are involved. I myself am quite open about not worrying who sees my email. But if I were sending material intended for copyright or patent, I am sure I would think otherwise.

Some 20 years ago, I was the first keynote speaker at a conference about privacy at Queens University, Canada. The title of my talk was "Privacy—A Concept whose Time Has Come and Gone." As you might suspect, this threw the conference into a tizzy. Today if I were to talk on the subject, the title would be: "Security Trumps Privacy Every Time."

What drove your long-time commitment to the ACM awards program and how important is this kind of recognition for advancing computing as a science and a profession?

My 24-year commitment to the ACM Awards Program comes from the belief that awards play an important part in identifying role models for society members, in highlighting how the society contributes to social welfare, and in cementing relations between academia and industry, which provides much of the funding for the awards.

A number of conditions have to be satisfied for awards to be credible. The range of award winners and composition of award committees must be representative of the membership with respect to gender, country of domicile, and academic vs. practitioner occupations. In addition, the selection of award winners must be based solely on the relative merits of nominees' contributions rather than personal relationships or agendas.

In all these ways, the Awards Program advances recognition of computing as a science and profession, and the Awards Banquet provides an occasion for celebrating important events.

How important is the effort to include computer science as a core course in the K12 curriculum, and to teach almost everyone to be comfortable with computers?

It has become VERY important for almost everyone to be computer-savvy. Whether you are a biologist, environmental scientist, astronomer, medical specialist, or organic chemist, you should know about large databases. If you are a professional, you want to be on LinkedIn. If you are a student, you want to be on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter. If you are a grandparent, you want to be on email or Skype.

This does not mean that everyone has to learn programming. But I must tell a story about how natural it is for very young children as well as seniors to become familiar with computers. When my youngest grandchild was six, he was allowed to play games on my laptop. My daughter-in-law warned me that I had to watch him carefully because they had discovered him using Google to look up words that were inappropriate for his age. Now, this lad had never seen a dictionary—but he had learned to peck out words heard from his schoolmates on a keyboard and use Google. And five years ago, I taught several cycles of a ten-hour course on email to groups of seniors living in a retirement home. These accounts demonstrate how strongly I believe that knowing how to use computers has become as critical as learning mathematics or understanding probability when making decisions about insurance or finances.

Finally, there are important implications for teachers of computer science. In the US, students achieve significantly lower scores in mathematics than in many other countries due in part to insufficiently qualified teachers. It would be a serious problem if we failed to produce teachers able to impart their computing expertise to the younger generation.

As a visionary who recognized the profound impact of computers on society, what advice would you give to young people considering careers in computing?

Young people who are considering computing careers are undoubtedly aware of the growing job opportunities for recent graduates. I would only suggest that they take courses in leading computer-related fields (e.g. Computer Security, Big Data, Quantum Computing). They should also be aware of new computing applications and alternative educational opportunities (e.g. haptic sensing, 3D printers, financial applications, robotics, artificial intelligence, Massively Open Online Courses). They should also know that teachers with mathematics and computer science backgrounds are likely to be in demand for a long time.

Equally important is advice to students majoring in the social or political sciences or the humanities. In conversations with recent graduates in sociology or psychology who are experiencing difficulty in finding employment, I suggest taking computer courses that introduce them to programming and computing as a problem-solving tool.