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On the afternoon of December 13, 2018, friends and colleagues gathered in the CIT to honor Professor John Savage, one of the co-founders of Brown CS, as he gave a lecture ("Cyber Security: A Societal Grand Challenge") that drew from a career of more than five decades. Although billed as a retirement lecture, John continues to teach in Brown's new Executive Master in Cyber Security degree program and has more than 185 students enrolled in his CSCI 1800 Cyber Security and International Relations class next semester. John's wife, Patricia, was also in attendance, and the talk was followed by a special reception at which colleagues offered toasts in his honor.
Department Chair Ugur Çetintemel opened the lecture by praising John's research and teaching and citing an article that John wrote more than twenty years ago, in which he had the foresight to encourage computer scientists to "become more outward directed" and "understand the problems that arise in computationally demanding science and business applications so we can help solve them". He thanked John for an extraordinary set of contributions to Brown: Savage served as Department Chair of Brown CS, Chair of the Task Force on Faculty Governance, and Chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, among other leadership roles. John received the President's Award for Faculty Governance in 2009.
His service to professional societies and in the field of cyber security and Internet governance are equally storied: John has been a member of the NSF Review Panel on Emerging Technologies and the Program Committee for the IEEE/ACM International Symposium On Nanoscale Architectures, a Jefferson Science Fellow for the US Department of State, an honored advisor for the government of Vietnam, and a member of the Scientific and Technical Intelligence Committee. He is a Fellow of AAAS and ACM, a Life Fellow of IEEE, a Guggenheim Fellow, a Professorial Fellow of the EastWest Institute, and the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Research Award.
But as John himself pointed out two years ago, one of the most remarkable aspects of his career is how he, Brown CS, and the field of computer science co-evolved. Savage co-founded the Department, led the effort that established a multi-decade partnership with Sun Microsystems, played a major role in seeing the CIT built, and founded the Industry Partners Program, but even as he was serving both Brown and the public sector at large, he was publishing three books and pursuing diverse interests that included computational complexity, scientific computation, computational nanotechnology, and cyber security policy and technology.
In his lecture, John drew on the full spectrum of his life's research and teaching to make an exacting case that cyber security dangers pose a threat to the very existence of our nation and our democracy, and that a "whole society approach" from a comprehensive set of experts and everyday users is necessary to combat it. He began with a balanced picture of a world that has benefited enormously from technological advances (currently, 55% of people worldwide are connected to the Internet and extreme poverty has plummeted globally to 9.1%) but is gravely threatened by technological misuse in the form of audio and visual fakery, lethal autonomous weapons, privacy violations, and numerous other dangers. Gone are the days, John said, in which the Internet could be seen as a "threatening but not terribly threatening" Wild West.
The facts of the case, Savage maintained, are stark: computer scientists can't secure technology alone, hardware and software errors will always exist, and security requires constant attention. "Above all," he said, "humans have important cognitive limitations" and share the same biases as our ancestors of 70,000 years ago: "To succeed, we must engage multiple human perspectives." Much of the responsibility lies with us as computer scientists, John said, offering solutions such as increasing the amount of security content in CS curricula, using memory-managed languages, and experimenting with segmented system architectures.
But perhaps most importantly, he argued that other domain experts are needed for true and lasting security by helping to counter social engineering strategies, examine misaligned incentives, assess the impact of technology on our privacy, and explore the role of history and culture on diplomacy. This includes the work of psychologists, economists, social scientists, political scientists, historians, and others. "Where is the wisdom required for this huge effort?" John asked in his conclusion. "I don't think it's just in computer science."
At the reception afterward, colleague after colleague stepped up to the lectern to offer a toast. "Versatility, service, and discipline," were the three words that Professor Andy van Dam used to describe John; Professor Roberto Tamassia mentioned John's commitment to collaborative work, remembering the days when Savage was instrumental in envisioning and launching projects at the largest scale, including grants for more than ten million dollars in which practically the entire faculty were listed as investigators. "Because of John," said Professor Anna Lysyanskaya, the Brown CS culture of warmth and mentoring is still unmistakable. "We're like a family, and that hasn't changed."
The final tribute was from Provost Richard M. Locke, who joked about envying Savage's discipline every time he arrived at the gym at 6:30 in the morning, only to see John and Patricia leaving the facility, their workouts already complete. But he quickly moved to words of high praise: "John is an example of everything wonderful about Brown...the scholarship, the teaching, but also as a person." He recognized Savage for his warmth, intellectual curiosity, and ability to make connections, but most of all for having the sort of vision that guides "not just what it means to be a great university, but how we conduct our lives". John and Brown CS, Locke said, are truly intertwined.
And that connection was clearly in John's thoughts as he rose for a few final remarks, saying that he was proud and pleased of the work that "many individuals" had done to help Brown CS grow: "We truly are a community, so we must have done something right...I thank all of you as well."
A recording of the lecture is available here.
For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.