January 16, 2021

Margaret Hamilton: "I thought more about the program that worked than the arrival on the Moon" | Technology

Margaret Hamilton: "I thought more about the program that worked than the arrival on the Moon" | Technology

It is the woman who designed the computer program that used the mission Apollo 11, the one that got the human being to reach the Moon for the first time in 1969. Margaret Hamilton (Indiana, United States, 1936) landed this week for the first time in Barcelona. He enjoyed the architecture of Gaudí and a concert at the Palau de la Música in a city that he thought was "wonderful". She picked up the title of doctor honoris cause in the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. The poise and precision that emerges from their sentences belong to someone who is a witness to the history of computing from the first day. She was the first one who linked the terms engineering and software. "I thought more about: God, the software it worked!; that we had reached the moon, "he recalls of an episode that these days is revived in cinemas with First man (The first man).

A computer program has to take into account all the possible combinations of the factors that intervene in its mission. If one of them is not included in the code, it is when it fails. In the mission that took Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin to the terrestrial satellite, an error could lead to a fatal outcome. Hamilton, who was director of the Software Engineering Division of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), saw the importance of designing programs in anticipation of mistakes. If to build a bridge you have to have pages and pages of documentation beforehand, to develop some software, too. Hamilton calls him "software preventive".

The computer that traveled with the lunar mission He had a capacity that nowadays looks minimal. "At that time if a computer was overloaded, it was switched off," says Hamilton. its software it served to perform calculations during the mission and was equipped with a "life-saving error detection system". In case of an unexpected event, the program was able to warn the astronauts in a series of screens. The most difficult challenge for Hamilton was to combine the operation of the program, which had a certain delay, with the communication by voice with the astronauts. He programmed it using Assembly language, much harder than the most popular languages ​​of today. Asked if it seemed difficult, she laughs and says: "I used to program in binary!", Referring to sequences of zeros and ones to give instructions to the computer.

The new doctor honoris cause of the UPC –who received one of the Presidential Medals of Freedom in 2016 from Barack Obama– studied mathematics with a mention in philosophy. Hamilton says he has learned a lot with the years of the relationship between both disciplines, since technology is now transversal. Passionate even today for "what mistakes do not say", computer science founded its own company in 1986, Hamilton Technologies, which created its own language to conceptualize the programs.

Margaret points out that currently "the same life cycles of the programs of 50 years ago are used and should not be like that". "People continue to do things in the same way because they are told to do it this way and it is difficult to invent a new form that they see totally alien," Hamilton reflects on software engineering. According to her, the professionals of these fields are, in general, reluctant to change and, that is why, she believes in entrepreneurial power "young children and old children with young minds".

On the challenges of the future of computing, such as artificial intelligence, Hamilton relativizes: "When they announced the arrival of computers, they also said that they would steal the work of many people and that they would do dangerous things." "It turned out that computers even created more jobs," he adds. And the parallel concludes: "If artificial intelligence does bad things, more jobs will be created to fight against them." Hamilton does not use social networks, because he comes "from a world where privacy was precious" and she does not want to lose his.

Women computing: "Inclusivity and natural evolution"

"Of course we want to inspire women to do what they want and be able to do," Hamilton reflects. However, they generate "contradictory feelings" initiatives such as Barcelona Grad Cohort Workshop, some workshops that were held last week in the Catalan capital with the aim of weaving a network of women informatics. Hamilton is committed to "inclusiveness" and "equal treatment as a result of natural evolution" rather than "to create a new type of exclusivity". Remember that in his beginnings at MIT he attended some meetings of a group of women to claim their rights. "They asked me to give a talk in the main room, but it was an act for women only. I told them I could not do it because it would create a new kind of discrimination, "he explains.


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