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As much as computing is ubiquitous in our lives, it is still effectively out of reach for most people: It’s hard to understand, hard to shape to personal needs, and hard to accommodate into legal and policy framework. Professor Hal Abelson’s research in MIT CSAIL involves democratizing computing — making information technology a tool for everyone, from children in school to leaders in government.
Prof. Abelson is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering in the EECS department at MIT and a Fellow of the IEEE. He has received many awards for teaching computer science, including the Bose Award, the Taylor L. Booth Education Award, the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education Award for Outstanding Contribution to Computer Science Education, and the ACM Karl Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award.
Throughout his impressive career, he has played key roles in fostering MIT institutional educational technology initiatives including MIT OpenCourseWare and DSpace, and he has served as co-chair of the MIT Council on Educational Technology.
His focus on both education and democratizing culture and intellectual resources has made him a leader in this field. He is a founding director of Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, and the Free Software Foundation. Within CSAIL he is also involved with the Internet Policy Research Initiative (IPRI), which collaborates with policy-makers and technologists to improve the trustworthiness and effectiveness of interconnected digital systems like the internet. He is also a co-author of the 2008 book Blown to Bits, which talks about the cultural and political disruptions caused by the information explosion.
Prof. Abelson is pursuing projects with this overall theme of making information technology more accessible for all.
One project, the MIT App Inventor, stems from the idea that anyone should be able to take powerful computational tools and create meaningful, original mobile applications for smartphones and tablets that have impact on the world and in their daily lives. App Inventor has a drag-and-drop interface that lets users piece together program “blocks” to create apps even if they don’t have a programming background. These capabilities mean that even children can use the platform to develop their own apps. For example, a group of girls in India created an app that allows the people in their community to schedule their families’ time at the local water distribution plant, reducing overall wait times for fresh water. The entire App Inventor implementation is open source, so users can build their own apps freely and, if they want to, can even make their own server and put the platform on it.
As a proponent for free software, Prof. Abelson is also working on projects with policy-makers in mind so that they understand the implications for a secure and trustworthy global information infrastructure. In a definition laid out by the Free Software Foundation, the “four freedoms” of free software mean that anyone can run the software for any purpose, study and modify the software to do what they want, redistribute the software, and redistribute any modifications they make to the software. In order to keep such powerful infrastructure transparent so that we can trust the software, Prof. Abelson works as a director of IPRI to help policy-makers with the regulation of cryptography, the security implications of requests by law enforcement for exceptional access to encrypted stored data and communications, and the privacy law and data sharing being explored between U.S. and European regulators.
Prof. Abelson hopes that as emerging technology, such as homomorphic encryption, continues to advance at rapid-speed, his research will be able to provide more accessible options to policy-makers for addressing the tough societal problems we are facing with our global information infrastructure.