Innovation

White House honors 5 technology innovators with the Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Obama named 21 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for a civilian. Nearly a quarter are tech leaders, and three from that group are women. Here's who they are.


Grace Murray Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard, c. 1960.

Image: Smithsonian Institution (Wikimedia Commons)

On Wednesday, President Obama named 21 Americans--from artists to athletes to engineers--who will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 22. The medal is "a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better," President Obama said in the official White House post. "These 21 individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way."

Of the 21 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, five have made contributions in tech. Even better? Three of those are women.

Here's the list.

Image: Garwin the Movie

1. Richard Garwin

Garwin, a polymath physicist, played a pivotal role in US defense and intelligence tech, helping design the first successful hydrogen bomb. He also was involved in creating innovations in "low-temperature and nuclear physics, detection of gravitational radiation, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computer systems, [and] laser printing," according to the post. Garwin also directed Applied Research at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center. He devoted much of his career to nonproliferation, and has advised every president since Eisenhower. Garwin has been instrumental in helping create solutions to crises like the BP oil spill and the nuclear plant explosion in Fukushima.

Image: ZDNet

2. Bill Gates & 3. Melinda Gates

Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is perhaps now best known for starting the philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with his wife, Melinda. The couple has, to date, contributed more than $36 billion to help the needy. The Gates Foundation, which focuses on helping those in developing countries, aims to make a difference for those in extreme poverty, aiding them with access to healthcare and education.

SEE: Where the Gates money is going (ZDNet)

Image: Margaret Hamilton

4. Margaret H. Hamilton

In 1960, Hamilton, just 24 years old, landed a programming job at MIT. With her math background, she began work that led to the creation of software for NASA that powered Apollo's command and lunar modules. Hamilton was not only a working mother, but a spaceship engineer. She went on to found and lead multiple software companies, and laid the groundwork for the concept of software engineering.

5. Grace Hopper (posthumous)

Dubbed "the first lady of software," Grace Hopper was a mathematician and rear admiral in the US Navy. In 1960, Hopper worked on the UNIVAC--the US's first commercial computer. She went on to create an early programming language called COBOL, and developed the first complier, which is a system that converts source code into a different programming language. Her legacy inspired the Grace Hopper Celebration, known as the world's largest gathering of women in technology.

It's no surprise that President Obama chose to highlight innovators in technology. His administration has been characterized, in some ways, by his appreciation of the importance of technology--which can be seen in the White House report on the future of artificial intelligence, for example, or the US Department of Transportation's proposed guidelines for the safe development of autonomous vehicle technology. And in highlighting these figures, he also acknowledges the important contributions of women, as well.

AI and computer science experts were encouraged by President Obama's inclusion of women on the list."Margaret Hamilton and Grace Hopper are both inspiring and exceptional women who were trailblazers, not just for women, but for the entire field of computer science," said Marie desJardins, associate dean and professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "President Obama is to be commended for honoring these talented, pioneering scientists."

Toby Walsh, AI professor at The University of New South Wales, agreed.

"It's fantastic to see women included in the list, to remind us of the pioneering role that many woman have played in technology, especially in the start of computing," he said. "Sadly we see women's participation falling in many areas today so we need to double our efforts in encouraging equality."

Vincent Conitzer, professor of computer science at Duke University, echoed the sentiment.

"It is wonderful to see two early female computer scientists, Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton, included among the recipients," he said. "Their stories remind us of the importance of combating prejudice and providing all individuals with the opportunity to succeed, in computer science and in society at large."

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