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May 28, 2014

MIT professor Joel Moses (top) joined the research initiative Project MAC in 1963 (Courtesy of MIT). 

The demand for computer science majors is booming. Even at traditionally liberal arts institutions, students who want to learn how to code are flocking to colleges and universities. It's almost hard to believe that the field wasn't even considered a real major back in the 1960s. 

In Cambridge this week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is celebrating 50 years of computing and the birth of a new field.

Listen to our extended interview with Joel Moses here: 

In 1957, Joel Moses was a 14-year-old from Brooklyn, working his first summer job running hand-written stock orders across the trading floor on Wall Street.

“It's the best job I ever had,” Moses said, laughing. “No responsibilities. I could lose million dollar checks!"

But everything changed when he got a behind-the-scenes tour and saw a magical device that promised to perfectly tabulate those checks.

“It was half the size of this office,” Moses said. “Spewing out of it was hot air. I fell in love with a machine. And all it did was add and multiply." 

It was a first-generation mainframe computer -- a massive multi-million dollar machine, incredibly slow and little memory. But Moses found his passion.

Today, from his cluttered office on Vassar Street in Cambridge, Moses teaches electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, the university's largest department. But when he first arrived on campus in 1963, it was to join a small initiative called "Project MAC," which stood for both machine aided cognition and multi-access computers.

“The large computers that were used at MIT and elsewhere cost $3 million dollars,” Moses recalled. “Because they were so expensive, you wanted to be able to have more than one person using them at the same time." 

Still, administrators viewed computer research as a passing fad rather than a serious academic discipline. So Moses said researchers had to prove their worth. They created time sharing and automated calculus problems.

“People were pleasantly surprised that a computer could do that as well as humans,” Moses said. “We did a number of cool things."

It wasn't until the 1970s that Project MAC grew into MIT's Lab for Computer Science, where Moses and his team of researchers developed some of the basic programming that evolved into the operating systems we know today.

"There was a turning point,” Moses said. “Sometime in the 80s I thought it was OK to major in computer science. Of course, at that point, 10 or 15 percent of all MIT students were majoring in computer science."

Today, the academic environment and job market are very different. One-third of all MIT engineering students now major in computer sciences. And a larger percentage of undergraduates take courses in the field. Of course, it helps that the median pay for computer science grads is north of $60,000.

So where is computer science going? Moses says the field is now focusing on facial recognition, speech understanding and neuroscience.

"All these things people have talked about for decades are coming to fruition and the computers are getting better and better," Moses said.

He predicts the next 50 years will be exciting as computer scientists collaborate with neuroscientists to better understand how the human brain works.

MIT's two-day symposium commemorating 50 years of computer science starts Wednesday, May 29 at the Stata Center near Kendall Square. 

higher ed, Joel Moses, computer science, new business models, technology and innovation, MIT

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