Does it make sense to try to identify the most important people in computing?

Grady Booch, who I admire immensely, has a long-term project entitled Computing: The Human Experience  where, in his words, he is “engaging audiences of all ages in the story of the technology that has changed our civilization. The story of computing is the story of humanity.”

I think that this is a fantastic endeavour and, as a European, it is good to see that Grady, unlike so many American commentators, understands the contributions that have been made in Europe to the development of the discipline. Recently, he has created a list of several hundred candidates who “we consider the most important computing people”. He invites the readers of his site to vote on these using a somewhat curious pairwise voting system.

I say ‘somewhat curious’ because it makes a (presumably) random selection of 2 candidates and asks the voter to select who is the ‘most important’. Therefore, you might be asked to decide whether Alan Turing is more or less important than Bill Gates. This vote appears to be given exactly the same weight as a situation where a voter has to chose between Alston Householder and Jean Hoerni (If you have never heard of these guys, join the club). The pairwise voting system is such that you get bored quite quickly and give up after a few attempts so that after 2 votes your view (as represented here) may be than Alston Householder is more important than Bill Gates.  What!

The list of candidates is also odd – and I wonder if it has been created automatically by data mining sources such as wikipedia. It does include  obvious major intellectual contributors to the discipline such as Alan Turing, John Backus, Maurice Wilkes, Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf and Dennis Ritchie as well as commercial contributors such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckenberg and Sergey Brin. It also includes a very much longer list of people who may have made some contribution (computer graphics seems heavily represented) but I immediately thought of people, such as Brian Randell and Cliff Jones, whose contributions are at least comparable but who are not included.  I’m sure there are many more than I’m aware of. There is also a number of  bizarre candidates who has far as I can see have contributed nothing to computing such as Julian Assange, Alan Sugar and Jimmy Wales.

The problem, of course, is that there is no objective means to judge importance.   All sorts of factors come into play that depend on the world view of the judge. Is a commercial contribution more important than an intellectual contribution? Is research more important than practice? Is engineering more important than mathematics? How much background knowledge does a judge have?   Are historical contributions (which have been assessed) more important than new developments (which have not)?

I think it is perfectly reasonable for Grady to pick his own list of who he considers important although I think that he should classify this to recognise (at least) the differences between intellectual and commercial contributions. He should also shorten it significantly – lists of any kind that are too long become meaningless. I appreciate that he is trying to emphasise that there is a wide diversity of contributors to the field not just the well-known names but I don’t think that this is the right way to do it.

But asking people to vote on ‘importance’ is a daft idea – it’s like asking people to vote on whether Coca Cola or Facebook is most important. Unless we have a set of parameters to form a judgement, then all we’ll get is a reflection of the knowledge (or lack of it) and prejudice of the voters.

5 thoughts on “Does it make sense to try to identify the most important people in computing?

  • March 31, 2015 at 8:11 pm
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    It is very critical to regard this votion fairly. And I think both contributions of computer scientists and commercial providers are of the same importance. Personally, as for commercial providers, I admire Steve Jobs and Apple, rather than Bill Gates and his Microsoft.

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  • March 31, 2015 at 9:16 pm
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    Ian,

    Thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed post. I want you to know that I do respect your point of view.

    I’m also delighted that you find our work on the Computing project to be interesting. Indeed, I am trying extra hard to be certain this is a project that celebrates the roots of computing from around the world. I remember when you and I first had a conversation about this a few years ago, that you’d expressed concern that it would end up being US-centric. True, we Americans have contributed a thing or two to computing 🙂 but clearly, if I stopped at our borders, it would be disingenuous to the many others from around the world – and not just the UK – who have made computing what it is. The story of computing is a global story, and I intend to tell it that way.

    In fact, this little crowdsourcing exercise is intentionally part of that philosophy.

    No doubt, the voting process creates curious pair-wise dilemmas (the selection is random, as you have observed). In a run off between Turing and Gates, I’d pick Turing – but that’s just my opinion – and by crowdsourcing this, I end up with some degree of collective wisdom. In the end, I make my own list, but this process gives me a partial ordering that helps.

    That fact you’ve not heard of people such as Alston Householder (a pioneer in computational biology) or Jean Hoerni (who invented the planar process for making semiconductors) is not only expected, it’s wonderful! You and I both come from largely a software world, and I intentionally went out of my comfort zone to attend to the core of all of computing. Perhaps that unto itself is a daft aspiration, but I think it’s an honorable attempt to try to reflect the whole of computing. Reality is that the present state of computing, and its future, are born from the daily efforts of millions of people in the domain…but some set of them are certainly worth of celebration because they did changed the course of the domain in some fundamental way. I indeed that people voting will discover people they’ve never heard of before, and learn something new (that’s why, when you vote, you can click on their name to see their Wikipedia entry).

    As for the how I created the list, by no means was it done automatically. Rather, this is something I’ve been working on the past several months. I began by reading everything I could find. Many of my book references may be found here (http://computingthehumanexperience.com/category/subjects/people/?orderby=title&order=asc), and you’ll see that these include compendiums such as “A to Z of Computer Scientists,” “Computer Pioneers,” “Digerati,” “Out of their Minds,”, “Portraits in Silicon,” “Software Pioneers,”…well, you can see the list yourself. I started with what are in effect refereed/reviewed sources that could be trusted. Next, I looked at how we as insiders name our luminaries. To that end, I scoured the award recipients from the ACM (the Turing Award, the Grace Murray Hopper Award, the Eckert-Mauchly Award…the whole list is here http://awards.acm.org), and the IEEE (the Harlan Mills Award, the Computer Pioneer award…the whole list is here http://www.computer.org/web/awards/technical-awards) and the BCS (the Lovelace Award and Turing Lecture, to name a few). I also looked at membership of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and various similar groups in England, India, and Japan. I reached out to some individuals such as Sue Black and Ruth Malan to ensure I was being gender- and geo-balanced. Then, I did go to Wikipedia, wherein there are a multitude of lists of various criteria and quality. Oh, one other: I also studied Google scholar citations, and made sure to include those on the list who had the highest citations in computer science (and by implication, important impact) So, let me assure you that this list was by no means arbitrary: from my point of view of having researched so much for Computing the past six years, I’ve tried to create this list from a place that tries to embrace the whole of the core of computing.

    The fact you’ve thought of people I have not – Brian Randell and Cliff Jones, to name two – is exactly one of the outcomes I had hoped by this open source process. I know there are gaps in my knowledge; I know there are many things I do not know. But, by opening this up, I know I’ll be exposed to people I never would have encountered, people who did not show up in my search process I describe above. So, thank you! I’ll look at Brian and Cliff’s bios and consider them!

    I do respect you think my inclusion of some on the list is curious, but then, if we agreed on everything the world would be a very dull place. I included Jimmy Wales because he birthed Wikipedia (Ward Cunningham is there too, as the inventor of the Wiki). Julian Assange, of course, brought us WikiLeaks, which I felt was also notable. Alan Sugar is there due to his leading the effort to bring the Amstrad CPC 464 to the market. Yes, in each of these cases, they are by no means inventors of key concepts (like Andrew Viterbi and the Viterbi algorithm) but they are IMHO people who significantly shaped the social or economic aspects of computing. Anyway, this is also why I’ve crowdsourced the effort. I’d like to see the wisdom of the crowds, for I am most assuredly open to being told I’m daft 🙂 (so that I can do something about it!).

    You are correct in saying there is no objective means to judge importance, which is why this very process is so exquisitely subjective. Here’s another way to frame the process: you’ve got a teen standing in front of you and for all they know, computers and the internet were invented on the 6th day as mentioned in Genesis. For them, computing began and ended with folks such as Mark Zuckerberg and maybe Steve Jobs. Who would you tell them are the interesting people of computing? Now, change the scenario: you’ve got a young woman standing in front of you, wanting to “get into computers.” What role models would you tell her about? And one more: you are at some party, taking to a Senator or MP, about something like net neutrality. What people and what stories to you mention to give them a proper historical perspective?

    It’s these questions I cannot answer myself, but I’m trying, so again, though the process is highly subjective, it gets people thinking (thus your original post) and it helps educate me (I’m learning about people and their stories I would not otherwise have).

    In the end, Ian, I will indeed pick my own list of the important people. I also agree that I need to shorten it, but this is part of the process to get me there. Indeed, as I look at the broadcast documentary project, I expect I’ll end up with only the stories of a few dozen people if that many. But I have to start somewhere to inform my story telling.

    So, I respect that you think this is daft and is not the right way to do it….but hearing what I shouldn’t do doesn’t advance my work. What do you think is a better way?

    Warm regards,

    Grady

    P. S. In the meantime, I want to thank the dozens of suggestions people have already emailed me in the past 12 hours. I’ve leaned some things, and will look at these all in detail.

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  • April 1, 2015 at 5:48 pm
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    Grady,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful response. I won’t address individual points but will take your last point ‘what is a better way’ and try to make some, hopefully constructive, suggestions.

    Firstly, importance is subjective but you should tell readers what YOU think it means – at least then they are less likely to think ‘why on earth is X or Y included in this list’

    Secondly, I’m not convinced by the notion of the wisdom of crowds. In fact, I think crowds are pretty unreliable when it comes to areas where they are not well informed so I think you need to prune the list yourself – it’s just too long and overwhelming. You know much more than most readers, you know what you mean by importance so just go for it. People simply can’t handle long lists like this.

    Thirdly, you need classification to help manage the complexity of the list. To use a food analogy, at the moment you are asking people to compare Vitamin C (basic building block, George Boole) with potato chips (addictive but not that good for you, Mark Zuckenberg). At least compare people in the same class such as Foundational knowledge, Inventors, Business creators, Software engineers, Hardware engineers, etc. The classes themselves are not too important and people can be in more than one class (e.g. Turing: Foundational knowledge and hardware engineer)

    You can also have a set of orthogonal classes such as prominent women, historical figures, internet pioneers, etc.

    Finally, the more context you can add the better. In reality, wikipedia entries don’t help as we look at this in a random sequence – so if there was a historical timeline (maybe for each class) against which people could be placed and related to notable developments such as generations of machines, etc. This is again something that will both help people make their decision and help you make a decision on significance.

    I hope this is helpful – I think what you’re doing is really important.

    Best wishes

    Ian

    PS Just another name that maybe should be on the list is Bob Barton,the designer of what I think was the most elegant commercial computer architecture ever created the Burroughs B5000 system. A stack architecture where an algol-like language was the system programming language. I was lucky enough to work with one of these machines in the 1970s.

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  • April 3, 2015 at 9:20 am
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    Ian,

    Oh, I am deeply sympathetic about your concerns regarding the wisdom of crowds. I mean, one need only look at our elected officials in Congress to offer clear and convincing evidence that, all to often, the crowds are stark raving mad.

    I like your idea of categorizing people; I shall do it!

    As for context, I concur this is just a start. I have in mind slicing and dicing these materials in a variety of ways; perhaps I’ll entice someone to turn this into something like http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0897919602/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0897919602&linkCode=as2&tag=comthehumexp-20 or perhaps even an app.

    Great find regarding Bob…I shall add him. Indeed, I grew up using a B5500 at USAFA, and the stack architecture was a major influence in the construction of the Rational R1000 (our Ada machine).

    Warm regards,

    Grady

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  • April 3, 2015 at 11:09 pm
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    I am in favor of Prof. Sommerville’s point of view. Every human being of the acdamics knows Prof. Sommerville is making common sense. Each survery should inform the participants of the purpose of the survey they take part in, because every one knows that they should have the right to information, for a better reflection of the world they are in.

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