Celebrating 50 years of teaching computer science at ANU

Foreground, nominee Lavinia Kanagandran, and her family in 2016. Background: nominees Geoff Huston AM and Peter Elford in 1990.

Friday 29 April 2022

Tonight The Australian National University (ANU) School of Computing will host esteemed members of Australia’s tech community to celebrate 50 years of teaching computer science at ANU.

Professor Amanda Barnard AM will announce the winners of the Joint Jubilee Fellowship, David Thodey will give the keynote address, and several Alumni Laureates of ANU computing will attend the event to be held at the National Gallery of Australia.

The Alumni Laureate nominees

The Alumni Laureates were selected from over 6,000 computing-related alumni, from the pioneers of the 1960s to graduates who received their diplomas a few months ago, after having been nominated by their peers. A list of 15 Alumni Laureates will be revealed tonight at the gala.

See full list of nominees

We asked the nominees a question that non-computer-scientists often ask with respect to the technological revolution sparked by advances in their field: “Did you see this coming?!”

“Not at the time I was an undergraduate at the ANU. Absolutely not,” said Geoff Huston, AM, who received his degrees in 1979 and 1984. He said that he was drawn to computer science because it was “an entirely new area of study where there was no rich history of conventional wisdom, a new space that was open to exploration”.

“I guess it was a failure of imagination on my part, but in the mid 70s computers were extremely expensive pieces of machinery housed in a carefully conditioned environment attended to by dedicated staff,” Huston said. “The entire concept that such machines would become so small and so robust that I could wear one on my wrist seemed ludicrous. The concept that we would manufacture billions of processors each year was just fantasy.”

“I think of myself as a terrible soothsayer,” said Dr Kerry Taylor who arrived at ANU as a PhD candidate in 1991 with a decade of work experience in the field. “But I knew I could get an interesting and challenging, well-paying job, in almost any place in the world, for the rest of my life. I also knew that computing could only get better, and more important, in people’s daily lives.”

Taylor obtained her PhD 1996 and today serves as a data science Professor and Convenor at the School of Computing. “I knew how in-demand computer scientists were, and how well they were paid, as it turned out to be one of those high-growth-trend periods in the computing industry,” she said.

David Sitsky, who obtained his bachelors in 1994, said he “really had little idea” that computer science would play such a pivotal role in the present today, while Dr Peter Whigham (Bsc 1984) said he had “virtually no idea”. 

Dr Paul Mackerras, who obtained his PhD in 1988, said, “Like anyone, I wondered from time to time what was going to happen in the future, but as for understanding that a computer in everyone's pocket would lead to the massive impact on society that social media is having, I would have to say that I didn't imagine anything like that.”

Bill Gibson, who graduated in 1975, said The Information Age would have been difficult to predict in the 1970s. “It was reasonably early days for computing especially commercial applications. There was a dearth of ‘apps’ and the main ones, outside of Academia, were payroll and basic HR. I started with punched cards and paper tape but within a few years was accessing the software via old CRT type tubes – ‘Green Screens’."

Gibson chose to apply his knowledge of computer science in public service, where his contributions included the creation of Medicare 1984 and a Australia-wide real-time claims network, both transformational at the time. He went on to become Australian Tax Office’s long-serving chief information officer.

Professor David Hawking, who arrived at ANU in 1971 and went on to serve in various roles including teaching, said, “I never expected that we’d reach the point where people would have several computers each (smart phone, tablet, laptop, home assistant, fitness device, car). Nor did I predict that they would all connect in such beneficial ways.”

Hawking and has published the book The History of Computing at ANU in conjunction with the 50-year anniversary of computer science teaching and will be signing copies tonight at the gala.

Professor John O’Callaghan AM arrived at ANU in 1966, the same year that a IBM 360/50 had been installed on the top floor of the Physics building. He obtained his PhD in what might now be referred to as computational physics in 1969, two years before computing classes were launched at the university. 

“Everyone had no idea of the transformation that computer science and information technology would have on our lives,” O’Callaghan said. “But being early in the use of computers I could sense IT was a growth area with many opportunities.”

Dr Dharmendra Sharma AM arrived at ANU 30 years later and graduated in 1992 and is now Dean and Distinguished Professor at the University of Canberra. “I had some understanding of the computational power in machines and how it could be used to crunch numbers for analysis," he said. "The full transformative power became clearer when the potential for symbolic computation and pattern-based reasoning was realised and developed.”

Professor Jian Yang arrived at ANU in 1987, obtained her PhD in 1995, and currently serves as a professor in the Department of Computing at Macquarie University. “At that time, we had seen limited transformational impact on our daily lives except for some management information systems developed in big industry organizations,” she said. “Studying at ANU, particularly researching in the area of Data Integration, was really an eye-opening experience for me to start to understand the real-world problems in data, data sharing, and data fusion that our society and organisations were facing, and still are.”

Peter Bailey ’98 said he decided to study computer science out of a love for computing, “without knowing how it would transform all of our lives over the past 35 years”. 

Now a Principal Applied Scientist at Microsoft, Bailey said that the transformational moment for him was seeing fellow-nominee Dr Andrew Tridgell demonstrate the first version of Netscape's browser in 1994. “It was so much slicker and more appealing than the earlier Mosaic browser we had been using for early WWW access,” Bailey said. “The Web started to look different from that day on.”

Tridgell, who obtained his bachelors at ANU in 1991, his PhD in 1999, was mentioned by several of his peers from that decade. “My career has mostly consisted of all the things I worked on while a PhD student that wasn't part of what I was supposed to be doing,” Trigell said. “I started about 25 new open-source projects over the 8 years of my PhD, and those projects are what I ended up basing my career on — particularly Samba.”

The only 20th century nominee to say that he “absolutely” did anticipate the revolution was Marcus Dawe, who arrived at ANU in 1987. Dawe was an early starter in every way. Having sold his first computer program at the age of 16, he worked three jobs as an undergraduate to help keep his family afloat.

“Some of us had already started our own software companies and were living the PC revolution,” he said. “I was building a banking system for Canberra's first private bank in my first year of Uni in 1988.”

Dawe, currently founder and CEO of Mineral Carbonation International, credited the ANU with presenting him and his peers with “the foundations of computational theory and software science just as it was transforming into a significant engineering field”.   

Turn of century brings new awareness

With the turn of the century came a more confident group of “soothsayers” on campus and thus among the Alumni Laureate nominees.

“I was pretty clear before starting my computing degree at ANU that computing would only become more and more central to our everyday lives,” said Professor Elanor Huntington, who obtained a PhD in 2000 and a MInfTechSt in 2009, went on to become the first female Dean of ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.

“My interest in the degree was to learn enough disciplinary basics to be able to learn more in the future so that I could make my own good judgements about how and where that might play out in the future,” said Huntington, who is now the Executive Director of CSIRO. “In short, I wanted to know enough to have agency in an increasingly computational world. “

Eric Rossi (BSEng 2007) said, “I always knew that technology, particularly software would be transformational on our future lives.” 

Rossi began software engineering during high school where a course in Artificial Intelligence captured his imagination and set him on a path to computing studies at ANU. “To this day I still find myself telling people that I owe everything that I have achieved to my software engineering studies at ANU,” he said.

“I started a PhD at ANU after building search engines at a government laboratory in Malaysia, so I was aware of how much computer science would change the way we access information,” said Dr Cheng Soon Ong, who obtained his PhD in 2005 and recently authored the book Mathematics for Machine Learning. “But my exposure to Logic and Machine Learning at the ANU has transformed the understanding, from computers following a fixed set of human programmed instructions, to human creativity and biases being absorbed into the design of AI based computing systems.”

Yaya Lu, who obtained her Bachelors degree with honours in 2020, said, “I was 10 years old when I first became interested in computer science. I was building LEGO robots in my garage to enter robotics competitions, but I knew I wanted to do more. I wanted to use tech to help people — and conversely — to help people understand tech too.”

Dr Jie Cai, who obtained his PhD in 2012, also traced his interest in computing to the age of 10 when he was first exposed to an IBM personal computer. “We called it ‘286’ named for the Intel CPU inside," he said.

Soon after, Cai learned “there is a major called computer science” and he went on to earn three degrees that are computer science related.

“I was very impressed by the education philosophy in ANU,” Cai said. “Hybrid course work, industry project, technical writing and optional second certificate for innovation and entrepreneurship helped me digging deeper in computer systems, algorithms and its potential in all degrees of changing people's real life.”

“I developed my first code on a Commodore 64 during my first year at high school, said Dr Arash Shahriari who obtained his PhD in 2017. “Working with monochrome TV, not a monitor, and saving my code on tape, not even floppy disk, I did not have much room for high expectations of the impact of computer science at the time!”

During his undergraduate studies, Shahriari choose to become an electronic engineer because it was the closest field to the computer science, which was not then established as a university degree. Then, after entering the job market he figured out automation is the future.

“I proudly started my PhD at ANU at the breath of AI revolution when I saw that not automation but intelligent machines will conquer the world,” Shahriari said.

More about the 50 years of computing at ANU celebration.



More about the 50 years of computing at ANU celebration.

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Updated:  10 August 2021/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing