Computer Science, A Woman's Work

University of Cambridge

Karen Spärck Jones


Computer scientist extraordinaire Karen Spärck Jones, professor emeritus of computer and information at the University of Cambridge, died last month of cancer. Shortly before that, she got to see her life's work in natural language processing and information retrieval receive even more acclaim than ever from major computer science institutions around the globe.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) had chosen her to receive both the ACM/AAAI Allen Newell Award and the ACM-W Athena Lecturer Award. And only weeks before that, she was also awarded the prestigious Lovelace Medal by the British Computer Society (BCS).

The woman they honored pioneered techniques that allow people to work with computers using ordinary words instead of equations or codes, a breakthrough that was important in the subsequent development of search engines. According to the ACM, she also discovered term weighting, a statistical method used to evaluate how important any given word is in a set of documents, and thus the word's significance for an individual document. Search engines use inverse document frequency, as it is known, to help score and rank a document's importance in response to a user's query.

In addition to her formidable intellectual contributions, Spärck Jones was an advocate for women in computer science (her slogan was "computing is too important to be left to men") and a teacher and mentor to generations of students. She also promoted a kind of professionalism in computer science rarely spoken about today.

In a fascinating interview with BCS managing editor Brian Runciman after she received the Lovelace medal, Spärck Jones said: "I certainly think that professionalism is very important....To be a proper professional you need to think about the context and motivation and justifications of what you're doing...You don't need a fundamental philosophical discussion every time you put finger to keyboard, but as computing is spreading so far into people's lives you need to think about these things....I've always felt that once you see how important computing is for life you can't just leave it as a blank box and assume that somebody reasonably competent and relatively benign will do something right with it."

At a time when computer science enrollments in the United States have plummeted, how important it is to be reminded by this remarkable woman that computer science is not a commodity to be outsourced or a bag of tricks for building better word processors, but a discipline, a science, that is central to solving human problems and realizing human dreams.

The editorial content of IEEE Spectrum magazine does not reflect official positions of the IEEE or its organizational units. Please address comments to Forum

Related Stories