Tuesdays with T4A: Ed Lazowska (01/21/13)

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Ed Lazowska
Computer Science & Engineering Professor | University of Washington
Ed is the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also founded and directs the University of Washington eScience Institute. Ed’s national leadership activities include serving as Co-Chair (with Marc Benioff) of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee from 2003-05, and as Co-Chair (with David E. Shaw) of the Working Group of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to review the Federal Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Program in 2010. He also has served as Chair of the Computing Research Association (1997-2001), Chair of the NSF CISE Advisory Committee (1998-99), Chair of the DARPA Information Science and Technology Study Group (2004-06), and Founding Chair of the Computing Community Consortium (2007-13), as well as serving on a large number of National Academies study committees. A long-time advocate for increasing participation in the field, he serves on the Executive Advisory Council of the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Where did you grow up, and what do you remember most about it?
I grew up in Washington, DC – my dad was a lawyer with the Department of Justice. It all seemed perfectly normal at the time, but some aspects are remarkable in retrospect. My classmates in the DC public schools included kids from across the country (the kids of members of Congress) and around the world (the kids of diplomats). Presidential appointees would sometimes give the “sermon” at our church (it was a Unitarian church so we didn’t hear much from the minister). My best friend in middle school and high school went on to co-invent Ethernet; my senior-year girlfriend is now a federal judge; I worked with her on a high school newspaper where Frank Rich (who later spent decades at the New York Times) had been the editor-in-chief the year ahead of us.
What was your first job?
You mean my newspaper delivery route?

What is your first political memory?
I grew up in DC, right? I remember my father railing that Nixon was a bum way back when I was in grade school in the late 1950’s… I remember my mother being a passionate Adlai Stevenson supporter… I remember that my parents wouldn’t let me participate in the March on Washington (I was 13 at the time), but allowed me to turn my bedroom over to two marchers from Buffalo, NY, a white man and a black man… I remember working on Gene McCarthy’s presidential campaign in its early days, in the attic of his home.
What is your favorite book?
I unfortunately must confess to not being much of a pleasure reader. Jared Diamond’s books have probably been my favorites. More recently, the book Merchants of Doubt.

You won the University of Washington Computer Science & Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award. What do you think makes a good teacher?
You need to begin by understanding what the job is. It’s not about conveying knowledge, it’s about teaching the process of discovery, and the love of that process. Babies are born as explorers, but all too often, “the system” beats that out of them as they mature. If you treat students as peers – as partners in discovery – amazing things happen. The biggest challenge, I think, is what I’ll call “intellectual empathy:” figuring out the misunderstanding that underlies a question. Often, it’s not nearly as helpful to answer the question that a student asked, as it is to answer the question that s/he should have asked. Getting this right is really hard – I honestly think it can require deeper knowledge to teach a field well than to practice that field.
You recently delivered remarks to the Brookings Institution entitled, 'Two Tales of Two Washingtons,' about how the state leads the nation in importation of people with a bachelor’s degree or higher, but falls way behind in preparing native Washingtonians for the innovation economy. What do you think can be done to bring the state’s educational system into the new economy?
Parents – voters – need to wake up and decide that it matters. It baffles me that we in Washington tolerate ranking 37th among the states in preschool enrollment, 31st among the states in the proportion of 9th graders who graduate from high school on time, 46th among the states in the proportion of high school graduates who enroll directly in a 2- or 4-year college, and 37th among the states in bachelor’s program participation rates. Somehow, all of this is OK with the citizens of Washington.
Looking forward, what do you foresee as computing and computer science’s most significant contribution to the world in the first half of the 21st century?
We’re going to make everything smart: homes, cars, health, robots, discovery.

Who are your role models and why?
My undergraduate mentor at Brown University, Andy van Dam – still teaching at the age of 75, and a dear friend. Andy was the first person to treat me as a peer, in the sense that he asked me to figure out how to do things that he himself didn’t know how to do – that no one knew how to do. (It’s amazing what you can pull off when someone acts as if it’s expected of you!) Andy has sent many hundreds of students off to careers in computer science, and managed to make each of us feel unique in some way.

As you look at your community, city/state/country, how do you view your role/responsibility as a citizen? Within that context, how do you view your role as citizen in relation to our government and democracy?
I guess I feel that “all politics is local” in this important sense: if each of us were to ensure that our own local environment acted reasonably and rationally (for me, that’s myself, my employer, my metro, my state), then recursively, larger entities would act reasonably and rationally. So while I’m active nationally in areas such as science policy, I feel a particular responsibility locally. And a big part of that is to try always to be fact-based – reality-based.
Just about everyone (regardless of political affiliation) sees a large gap between our politics (Washington, DC as well as state capitals) and the reality on the issues we face as a Country. Why do you think that is? I know it's a tough question, but what do you think can be done to close that gap?
The word “reality” is critically important. Partisanship has caused us to lose our grip on reality. Not long ago, residents of the 34 OECD nations were surveyed to learn their response to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” Rounding to the nearest 5%, the statement was believed to be true by three quarters of those surveyed in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Japan, the UK, Norway, Belgium, Spain, and Germany. Among respondents in the US, only 40% believed the statement to be true! 40% believed it to be flat-out false, and 20% were not sure. The US was next to last among the 34 OECD nations in the proportion who believed the statement to be true – ahead of only Turkey. This sort of skepticism/ignorance is not restricted to evolution, of course – another example is global warming and climate change. I’m going to say something that sounds really partisan: the aspect of the Bush presidency that will have the longest-lasting negative impact is the manipulation of science and the exploitation of science skepticism/ignorance for political ends. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan had been fond of saying, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.”
Are political parties becoming less relevant today, particularly for young adults? Whatever your answer, why do you think that is?
Of course. Political redistricting has led to extremism. (I happen not to believe that this extremism is equally distributed across the political spectrum, but let’s not get into that.) That’s why T4A.org – off-the-record conversations about issues that really should not be partisan – is so important. At one of our TechTables, the guest said that there are easily 70 Senators who could agree on sane immigration revisions and sane tax/budget revisions if they could do so behind closed doors. Somehow we need to create “safe places for people to stand” if we’re to make progress. At the same time, we need to put a stop to the sort of “fair and balanced” approach that gives equal weight to conflicting positions even when one of them is clearly based on a distortion of the evidence.

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