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Dr. Todd Shurn Speaks Computer Science

Dr. Todd Shurn is an associate professor in the Computer Science program at Howard University. He earned his Bachelor’s (1983) and Master’s (1984) of science in industrial and operations engineering from the University of Michigan. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in computer science and engineering from Southern Methodist University in 1994. Dr. Shurn’s specialties include interactive applications, computational optimization and engineering and computer science entrepreneurship amongst many others. His research includes games, service oriented programming, agriculture applications, and immersive applications. Dr. Shurn has taught various subjects at the Howard University School of Communications and computer science program, such as video game development, interactive multimedia applications and discrete structures.

Dr. Shurn had many early influences and life-shaping moments. He explained that he is from Benton Harbor, Mich., a predominately black city that was taken over by the state of Michigan. Benton Harbor has a very high crime and unemployment rate. He explained that he did not want to be in a position where he was a part of the negative entities that surrounded him in his community. Thus, he strived to acquire a skill that would allow him to define his own way. That is what led him to computer science. Making sure that he was in a position to define his own way despite his surroundings is what affects his decisions still today. Dr. Shurn also explained that the reason why he came to Howard was to work with black students and be a part of the movement of empowering the community to have better representation in computer science fields, whether it was games, blockchain, interactive media etc.

Dr. Shurn explained the necessary qualities that are important for a developer to have are commitment to finishing the job, resourcefulness and confidence in your skill set. That’s because, when developing original software, there is always the question of rather or not your goal is accomplishable in the first place. Thus, those qualities are important to reach your end goal. In addition, Dr. Shurn mentioned that he appreciated the creative side of software deployment and that it enables opportunities for the black community to create jobs within the community, due to the many areas where software is deployable.

One of Dr. Shurns current projects involves blockchain technology. Merriam-Webster defines a blockchain as “a digital database containing information (such as records of financial transactions) that can be simultaneously used and shared with a large decentralized, publicly-accessible network.” Dr. Shurn mentioned the Black Blockchain Summit, which was recently held at Howard University. The summit’s website states that the purpose of the summit is to “convene Blockchain technology developers, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts to present Blockchain applicants for solving challenges worldwide. The objective of the summit is to find innovative and lasting solutions that disrupt the unsustainable status quo, bringing lasting prosperity and independence as envisaged by freedom fighters and liberators in the ‘Arusha Declaration.’ ” Dr. Shurn gave much insight about the implications of blockchain.

Dr. Shurn explained that one of the utilities of the blockchain is that it creates an immutable record that parties can agree to. For example, if there is a land transaction, that transaction can be documented in a blockchain in a way that is indisputable. It is unchangeable and its validation is not dependent on any particular government or political organization. This notion, particularly in underdeveloped countries is major because you can, for example, stake out a deed for land or another resource and no one can dispute the transaction because the transaction is documented on computers around the world. Blockchain does not even allow users to pull documented transactions off their own systems. However, if that was to occur, the rest of the users in the network would still have the record. A possible con of blockchain technology is due to the fact that blockchain transactions cannot be changed. So if someone executes a transaction that they are not satisfied with, there is no way to undo it. The only possibility is to do another transaction. Thus, proper procedures and guidelines to ensure the accuracy and integrity of a transaction before entering must be established. When asked if he thought the implication was positive to use blockchain for transactions such as voting and taxes, he agreed and added that another major notion for blockchain deployment is using the technology to track nuclear material (waste and material for weapons). Another aspect that Dr. Shurn mentioned that made blockchain especially notable for undeveloped and African countries was its ability to transfer currency that it is not controlled by any one government or bank. The digital currency bitcoin for example is the same all around the world. Thus, governments cannot repress citizens with measures such as raising the cost of a product or not making something available. Dr. Shurn explained that it was relatively the equivalent of providing the ability to make international purchases and have the products sent to you.

Another project that Dr. Shurn is currently working on is “Smart Cities”, which is a system in which sensors are put in roadways that interact with cars and in waterways that identify pollution. Dr. Shurn explained that a current major emphasis in development is developing code around real-time sense-data, which means that inexpensive sensors can be deployed (in the ground, water systems, the air etc.) and decisions can be made in order to control what is desired to be controlled. For example, low-cost sensors programmed with software that can read water levels and pollution to control gates in a sewer system can be deployed to improve optimal water flow and to ensure that the treatment center is getting the most polluted water first. The Smart Cities concept involves computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

Dr. Shurn explained that he is an avid reader and participant in workshops and conferences to keep up with the constantly changing and evolving field of technology. When asked if he came across any problems or challenges in his computer science journey, he explained that he did not consider his challenge to be a problem but an opportunity. The broad domain of information technology (database, cyber security, network optimization, artificial intelligence, human computer interface etc.) makes it somewhat challenging to identify a core expertise. Dr. Shurn made some decisions in terms of the skill set within that space that he wanted to develop, which was network optimization (logistics, optimization, getting data from point a to point b efficiently, etc.).

In closing, a last message from Dr. Shurn for individuals who might be interested in the field of computer science was to reiterate the idea of identifying an area of specialization. In addition, he encouraged showing initiative by participating in competitions, which is very important (rather it is cyber security, robotics, programming, steel bridge design and other design competitions etc.). This is a means to test your creative skills and try to develop it as much as possible to solve problems. Lastly, for communications students, Dr. Shurn advised that learning how to code makes a communications student more employable. In addition, because technology is so heavily involved in the field of journalism, many reporters have to know how to interact with content management systems and conduct their own data analysis. Thus, Dr. Shurn shared with me that a major Journalism outlet views reporting as more of a data analysis type of endeavor, compiling data from various sources. Due to this, he has experienced that particular journalism company often recruit people from the computer science department at Howard, because their idea is they can teach the computer science student the journalism skills on the job. I had a very insightful conversation with Dr. Shurn.