Meet the nerd who’s already shaping the future

Professor Hal Abelson talks about giving away MIT courseware and other intellectual property, what’s wrong with computer science and why he’s proud to be a nerd.

ITBusiness.ca: In 2001, you and five others started the Creative Commons movement, devoted to offering users and creators of intellectual property new rights options. Why is it significant?

Hal Abelson: The great power of the Web is that people can share stuff and remix it and build on each other’s work. But the way copyright law has evolved, it’s just not well matched to the Internet. Since 1986, in the U.S., if you create stuff, at that moment, it’s actually copyrighted. You don’t have to register it. What that means is, if you go out on the Web and see stuff, you have to assume you can’t use it. What should be a shared thing that people can use and contribute to ends up being an IP minefield.

ITB: Is it a minefield for creators of intellectual property as well?

HA: Yes, it works both ways. A lot of companies have internal documents, educational stuff that they’d like to post. But it’s unclear what risks they take. So either they put on an “all rights reserved” copyright — which technically means no one on the Web can even copy it, so I’m not sure why it’s on the Web — or they make some idiosyncratic license, and then you can’t mix in things from other places.

So what [Creative Commons] makes is a standard set of licenses that are all worked out for posting things. So you can look at stuff and see what rights you have, either as a contributor or a user. There are now 140 million documents on the Web under CC licenses. At Mozilla.com, there’s a menu that says, “Search for this on the Web, but only for stuff that’s CC-licensed.” Or you can go to Google or Yahoo and say, “Find me stuff, but only stuff that I can reuse.”

ITB: OpenCourseWare, which offers free online access to MIT courses, is another big movement that you helped launch.

HA: In 2000, there was going to be this $2 trillion market for material on the Web, and universities were wondering, “How are we going to charge for it?” So when MIT said, “We are going to put these things up and make them free,” that was wildly countercultural. I was one of about six people who came up with this weird idea: Why don’t we give this stuff away?

ITB: What’s the status of it today?

HA: It’s been surprisingly more successful than we predicted. We have about 1,600 MIT courses up, and sometime next fall, we’ll hit 1,800. That’s virtually all MIT courses.

But this was not an MIT-only operation. It really was the vision that lots of universities put up collections of what’s now called “open educational resources.” There’s now the OpenCourseWare Consortium , with more than 100 members.

ITB: Who uses MIT’s courseware?

HA: It’s all over the world. We are up over 1.2 million visitors a month. About half are what we call “self-learners,” a lot of them at companies, and a lot are people who just want to know about stuff. One-third are students at other universities, and one-sixth are teachers.

ITB: How important is computer science today, anyway? Hasn’t it matured?

HA: It’s not that it’s matured; it’s gotten fossilized and myopic. People are still thinking about stuff that was happening 10, 15, 20 years ago, but the world of computing has changed immensely. In traditional CS, if you think about technology as being a box, they are all looking inside the box, not outside the box.

For example, in traditional CS departments, people think about human-computer interaction as one person interacting with a machine. But what’s it like when you think about whole societies interacting [with machines]? That’s also human-computer interaction.

ITB: What’s outside the box that computer scientists should be looking at?

HA: The “science of the Web.” It’s still pretty undefined, but it’s this notion of, what are the consequences of having these very large shared-information spaces, and what’s the mix of technology and policy that makes that work? It’s looking at the impact of these systems on society and the way we think. That’s starting to happen.

ITB: What else is outside the box?

HA: The deep links with biology. We are getting to the point we can actually program individual cells.

It is certainly true that living cells and DNA will form a lot of the substrate on which we will do CS in the next 20 to 30 years. It’s called synthetic biology, and it will have enormous implications for the way we think about programming.

The other [link] is with neuroscience. People have been beating the artificial intelligence drum for 50 years, but we are now starting to learn how brains actually work. So now there’s a real opportunity to put that together with modern high-performance computing. There’s enormous potential there.

ITB: Why are fewer and fewer people, especially women, going into CS?

HA: Part of the issue is jobs not paying enough. There is also the thing I spoke about earlier, of CS not being expansive enough — this notion that the computer scientist will be sitting in a box writing Java code or something. That’s just not where the interesting stuff is.

ITB: Do computer scientists have a reputation for being “nerds,” and is that a problem?

HA: My non-technology pet peeve is people who misuse the word “nerd” to mean antisocial misfit.

I use it to mean someone who is very enthusiastic, very interested in something. Sometimes MIT is urged to seek “well-rounded” people, but as the saying goes, “Well-rounded people are pointless.”

My wife, Lynn, is the originator of the MIT “Nerd Pride” slogan. We give out Nerd Pride pocket protectors.

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