The CEO Interview
‘I expect government to throw challenges at university professors as did John F. Kennedy’
The world is moving towards the second machine age, which is characterised by rapid advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Nations compete on the strength of their technological advancement built on computer programming. In this interview, SUNDAY ERIC ADEWUMI, professor of Computer Science and the Dean, Faculty of Science, Federal University, Lokoja x-rays the state of programming in Nigeria. He spoke to STEPHEN ONYEKWELU. Excerpts:
Tell us a little about your professional career.
After graduating with a B.Sc. degree in Computer Science in 1983 from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria; I participated in the one year mandatory National Service in Kano State. Thereafter, I got a job with the Kaduna Polytechnic as a Lecturer in Computer Technology/Mathematics.
From there I worked with other organisations such as Southern Borno Agricultural development programme, Maiduguri; United Nations, Somalia; Federal University of Technology Minna; and the University of Jos, Nigeria. Then in 2012, I joined the Federal University Lokoja.
What is the state of coding or computer programming in Nigeria?
Coding or programming is no longer as difficult as it used to be in the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Programming used to be essentially machine language, a form that was prone to errors as they are characterised by the use of strings of 0s and 1s. This mode of programming then was termed low level. With developments in high level languages, which are English-like, programming became easier.
In the early stages, system were essentially proprietary (closed system) but with the advent of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), some liberality has been introduced into coding. The Free and Open Source Software gives freedom and opportunity to programmers to learn from best practices. Nigeria has always been part of any positive initiative geared towards the development of mankind.
Like I said earlier, coding has moved from what used to be the combination of 0s and 1s to English-like text that can be understood. Most systems are just plug-and-play. There are also reusable codes available on the internet. Most systems that anyone may want to build have their replica available on the internet which can be leveraged upon. You even have some codes generated when you initiate some activities. So, coding is getting better by the day.
Can coding be taught to children? How?
Coding is the art of programming. Children are receptive to any form of instruction and they are teachable. Elders tell us that it is easy to bend a fresh fish, not so with a dry one. Children can therefore be taught the art of programming. The development of BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) is meant for beginners like children.
If the country wants to get somewhere, she needs to have a plan in form of a policy of actions that would be taken on issues like this. We are not yet there but we can get there if we have the right people, right policy, and right institutions to implement policies and enforce it. The curriculum may contain such things as how computer works, how computer see data and the relationship between data and memory locations, the different type of variables and their uses, the concept of loops and how it helps machines to perform routine jobs etcetera. Our Educationist can help plan all these and I believe we can succeed head or tail.
What are some of the challenges you face as a professor of Computer Science in Nigeria?
Challenges are numerous, however they are surmountable. A professor is expected to proffer solutions to challenges. Where Professors usually have challenges is when solution are not implemented. As a Professor, I do not have the capacity to implement some of the solutions. I believe for example that Nigeria can develop her own cryptographic solution to defend and protect her data resources, protect her digital borders. Nigeria has not used her professors to proffer solutions to her numerous challenges. I expect government to throw challenges at university professors, the type thrown by John F. Kennedy when he challenged American scientists to take them to the moon.
Neil Armstrong and his colleague accomplished this goal in July 1969. We are challenged by power and energy, including distribution. Government can ask universities to bid to solve identified challenges in the nation. Government may in-turn give them enough resources. Even the subvention that is given can be tied to solutions in form of research grants.
We must all work for every kobo. However, government must give enough so that she can get enough results. I don’t think government has any business worrying itself with how to surmount challenges; they should rather be implementing solutions to challenges as provided by the universities.
Our challenges are surmountable only if government provides the enabling environment. I don’t think an individual; given our political landscape has the capacity to advise government effectively, institutions, such as a university can. As a professor of computer science, one faces the challenge of data and power. Government should be in a position to provide enough bandwidth to universities to enhance their research. Again, power is a challenge to all, for which I am one.
You recently delivered an inaugural lecture titled “Algorithm Makes Sense of Out of Nonsense”, please, could you explain in a lay person’s language what this means?
Algorithm will always make sense out of nonsense. Most algorithmic statements are nonsensical as they do not make common sense to ordinary man or woman. What I tried to say in the lecture was that there is always commonsense in nonsense. Programmes in any language are essentially algorithm and are also pseudo codes which ordinarily do not make sense, yet they produce useful results.
The statements of algorithm are always nonsense. We also identified from the lecture that technology that is making big sense today started from very simple concepts that we already know and which ordinarily look like nonsense. From the primary schools, we are familiar with the concept of subtraction, addition, multiplication and division and this is what technology is mostly about.
It has leveraged on these four as the job of most program is subtracting, adding, dividing or multiplying. For example, Let us recall how multiplication and division algorithm works. In multiplication, 3×2 is the same as 3+3 or 2+2+2 which is 6. Similarly 9÷3 = 3, because we can subtract 3 from 9, 3 times before the remainder becomes less than or equal to zero (0).
In the same vein, 14÷4 = 3 remainder 2 or 3½, because we can subtract 4 from 14 three (3) times before the remainder becomes 2. Again, because 2 is less than 4, we put a period after 3 and then multiply the remainder 2 by 10 or simply add a zero (0) after 2 to obtain 20.
The method (algorithm) is then applied as we did earlier to determine the number of times 4 can be subtracted from 20 before the result becomes less than or equal to zero (0). In this case, the result is 5. This 5 is then inserted after the period; making the answer to be 3.5 or 3½. It then means that 14÷4 = 3.5 or 3½.
In this division, the value 14 is called the dividend, and the value 4 is called the divisor while the result, which is 3½ is known as the quotient. All these are known even from our primary school days. The ability of algorithm to solve life’s challenges once and for all and in finite time is what makes it stand out amongst the means of resolving many of life’s challenges. This is why algorithm makes sense out of nonsense.
What is the future of Information Communication Technology in Nigeria?
The future is bright for Information Communication Technology in Nigeria. However, we need to take precaution and that brings us to the issue of policy. Most systems that we depend on are application based. Take the issue of banking system, airlines, rail system, power generation, transport systems and even making purchase online are all that we are all involved in. If, for example, a virus attacks any of these systems it will affect all of us.
The virus war is raging and I don’t think we even have any policy concerning this menace. Computer virus has capacity to make any of these systems to collapse. Yet we partake in it, yet we do not have any policy to mitigate its effect. When the chips are down, we shall all suffer. ICT has a bright future in Nigeria, but we all have a role to play in mitigating the effect of computer virus just in case it happens in a large scale.
What advice would you have for budding programmers?
There is future in programming and early starter should endeavor to learn the rule of the game very well. Systems development must be well planned and executed. It is not a one-off item. Sufficient time must be given to planning. They must also identify the platform for each challenge before they start coding. The result of wrong planning is a failed system. Good systems are expensive to build and implemented. The best option for us in this part of the world is to imbibe the culture of using Free and Open Source Software to develop our applications as this will reduce cost, take us out of licensing issues, gives them opportunity to get help from the open source community when they need one.
What is the value of hacking in programming?
Hacking is the means by which an individual who is not an authorised user of a system gains access to either a computer system or a network. Most hacking may be intentionally malicious; however, it shows that the hacker is creative enough to identify a loophole in a system.
Well, the value of hacking in programming may be for the individual programmer to gain knowledge and information about a system. Hacking also involves a lot of work. A hacker may have to do more thereby gaining sufficient knowledge about a system and the tool for accessing it.
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