Visionary Engineer Lynn Conway BS’62, MS’63 Heralds Dawn of the Techno-Social Age

At Columbia Engineering’s annual Magill Lecture, pioneering engineer and computer scientist Lynn Conway BS’62, MS’63 said, “Humanity stands at the cusp of a new technological and social renaissance.”

“Humanity stands at the cusp of a new technological and social renaissance,” Conway said at Columbia Engineering's annual Magill Lecture.
—Photo by Timothy Lee Photographers

Conway, professor emerita of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is a pioneer of microelectronics chip design. Fresh out of the Engineering School, she worked at IBM Research and quickly innovated a key solution for a fundamental computer architecture problem in what were then called supercomputers, enabling vastly more powerful machines with what she termed dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS). Later, as a researcher at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), an educator at MIT, and a leader at DARPA, she invented and propagated scalable metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) design rules and simplified methods for silicon chip design, spurring a revolution in very-large-scale integration (VLSI) circuits, fitting more transistors onto ever more complex chips.

Conway is also an early advocate for transgender people, having faced challenges in her career when she decided to transition from male to female in 1968.  She subsequently lived in so-called “stealth mode” for decades, but in the late 1990s, as computer historians sought to learn more about her early work, she went public to share her personal story and to help high-tech firms foster an inclusive environment for innovation.

Quoting Winston Churchill in her keynote that “the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see,” Conway talked about the age of discovery in the 1400s, when advances in navigation and shipbuilding combined with the invention of the printing press led to increasing diffusion of knowledge with the rapid development of global trade. Later, in the industrial revolution, railroads and telegraphy accelerated social change, compounding over time. Inspired by her interdisciplinary studies in history, anthropology, and sociology at Columbia, Conway sought, as an engineer, not only to ride a wave of innovation in computing but to spark maximal diffusion of her open-ended method for better VLSI chips by empowering more researchers to advance the field.

“The idea was to use computers to design new chipsets for more powerful computers for more sophisticated chipsets, and so on,” Conway said, speaking at Columbia Journalism School’s famous World Room on March 23. “And do ever more with ever less, as has become so important for the environment and so many fields.”

As a groundbreaking instructor at MIT in the late 1970s, co-author of the seminal textbook Introduction to VLSI Systems, and a public servant with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Computing Initiative, Conway shared her method according to what she called “the freedom of the silicon press,” helping chips progress from holding a few thousand transistors in the early days to several billion at present.

Looking ahead, Conway pointed to a vast array of emerging technologies—from drones to virtual reality to 3D printers that print 3D printers—and predicted that our time marks “the dawn of the techno-social age.”

“These aren’t frivolous playthings.  They illuminate a vast frontier for human empowerment and amplification,” Conway said. “If you want to change the future, just start living as if you are already there.”

The Magill Lecture is an annual event hosted by Columbia Engineering. Conway’s talk was co-hosted by the Office of the Provost for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion, LGBTQ @ Columbia, and Multicultural Affairs | Undergraduate Student Life.

—by Jesse Adams


Download “Our Travels Through Techno-Social Space-Time: Envisioning Incoming Waves of Technological Innovation”, by Lynn Conway, 2016 Magill Lecture, Columbia University, March 23, 2016 (.pptx)

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