This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I interview this Year’s ACM Turing Award Recipient, from Microsoft Research, Charles Thacker. The award was announced this month–March 2010. Chuck is the legendary computing pioneer, world-renowned distinguished researcher, inventor, and engineer whose innovations influence every part of our lives. Take a moment to carefully read Chuck’s profile below. Many of the foundational computing elements we use today (WYSIWYG PCs, Ethernet, Laser printing, High speed and peer networks, Multi-processor computing, Tablet computers, Parallel/multi-core/multi-threading, ..) can be directly traced to original innovations from Chuck. Chuck is also key to the founding of the most famous research labs including: XEROX PARC, DEC SRC (Systems Research Center), and Microsoft Research Cambridge UK.
The ACM Turing Award is widely considered the Nobel Prize of Computing carrying a $250,000 cash prize. Chuck is the second hardware engineer to receive the Turing Award; the last one given out in the 1960s’. Chuck will receive the award in June. I will have the good fortune to talk with him again at the ceremonies.
Chuck Thacker was fortunate to enter computing at a time when the fundamental electronic technologies had matured to the point that many of the predictions of the field’s pioneers could finally be achieved. Educated in Physics at the University of California at Berkeley, he joined the university’s project Genie in 1968. This project had constructed one of the most successful early timesharing computers, the SDS 940, and was planning a follow-on system when he joined the project.
The project became the Berkeley Computer Corporation, which developed the BCC 500 timesharing system. Here, he led the group designing the system’s central memory and microprocessor. Although not a commercial success, BCC supplied the core group of technologists for the newly-formed Computer Science Laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which he joined in 1970/1.
During his thirteen years at PARC, Chuck led the hardware development of most of the innovative systems that were developed at CSL. He was the project leader of the MAXC timesharing system, a PDP-10-equivalent that was one of the first systems to make use of semiconductor memory. He was the chief designer of the Alto, the first personal computer to use a bit-mapped display and mouse to provide a windowed user interface. He is a co-inventor of the Ethernet local area network, and contributed to many other projects, including the first laser printer and the Dorado, a high-performance ECL-technology personal workstation. He also designed and implemented the SIL CAD system, which was used by most PARC hardware designers throughout the ’70s. In the early ’80s, he was architect of the Dragon, a multiprocessor system that employed the first “snooping” cache.
In 1983, Chuck was a founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation’s Systems Research Center. Here he led the hardware development of the Firefly, the first multiprocessor workstation, and the Alpha Demonstration Unit, the first Alpha-architecture multiprocessor.
Chuck has also worked extensively in computer networking. He led the development of AN1, a local area network that used active switches and 100 Megabit-per-second point-to-point links to provide high aggregate performance. The follow-on project, AN2, also developed by his team, became the DEC Gigaswitch/ATM product.
He joined Microsoft in 1997 to help establish the company’s Cambridge, England laboratory. After returning to the U.S. in 1999, he joined the newly-formed Tablet PC group and managed the design of the first prototypes of this new device. He then worked on a project to make computing more pervasive and effective in K-12 education. He is currently setting up a group at Microsoft Research in Silicon Valley to do computer architecture research.
Chuck has published extensively, and holds a number of U.S. patents in computer systems and networking. In 1984, he was awarded (with B. Lampson and R. Taylor) the ACM’s Software Systems Award for the development of the Alto. He is a Distinguished Alumnus of the Computer Science Department of the University of California, and holds an Honorary Doctorate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). He is a member of the IEEE, a fellow of the ACM, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, which awarded him (with Butler Lampson, Alan Kay, and Robert Taylor) the 2004 Charles Stark Draper prize for the development of the first networked personal computers. In 2007 he was awarded the John Von Neumann medal by the IEEE. In March 2010, Chuck was awarded the Turing Award by the ACM.
For more information on Chuck, see: Detailed Profile
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Chuck shares when he heard about this extraordinary honour as recipient of the 2009 ACM Turing Award, widely considered the Nobel Prize in computing, how he felt at the time and the reaction from his colleagues and his family.
What specific qualities make you excel at innovating new technologies?
“….I try to read as much as possible and be aware of what technologies are becoming plausible as things that can be used in the construction of other new things. I’ve always been privileged to have excellent colleagues….”
You had an early start and an opportunity to work in a kind of inventor’s workshop. Can you describe that process?
“….I was working with a fellow with whom I had worked before and he had started an inventorship in Berkeley and I made him a deal. I told him if he would teach me to operate his machine tools, I would design electronics for him. It worked out well and it actually led to my taking the job at the Genie Project at the University of California which led to everything else….”
Describe the types of technologies being created or updated that will drive the user computing experience in ten years? In what ways in the next 5 years does this intersect and extend your work with the ground-breaking tablet-PC?
“….The types of technologies are information access technologies….Things like the tablet PC work very well and the GUI that we use today that grew out of the Alto, but there is also still a place for having a more natural interaction with the computer….”
You are one of the initial members of the team that founded Xerox PARC. Bob Taylor was there and he laid out a vision for computing. Can you describe that vision and how that inspired you?
“….There were two components of that. He (Bob) was more interested in the human uses of computers and in particular using the computer as a communication device. The other component was man-computer symbiosis. A lot of people worked on the latter. The former got pretty much solved, people communicate pretty much all the time. As far as symbiosis between humans and computers – THAT we don’t know how to do….”
How would you describe your three top innovative achievements in terms of what specifically inspired these innovations, what were the factors that made the innovations possible, the problems you were trying to solve, your solutions, and the impact it has today and into the longer term future?
“….The most important was probably the Alto itself and a lot of the technology that surrounded it. The interesting thing about the Alto was not only that it was the first machine but that it was part of a distributed system….I’m particularly proud of some of the networking that we did at the DEC system research centre in the mid-80’s and early 90’s. Many of the techniques that were developed in those products are now coming into much wider use today as networks proliferate….Another is the B3, which is the FPGA platform for enabling new kinds of computer science architecture research….”
All of our concepts of computing were developed 20 to 30 years ago and now everything has changed, the technology has changed, the economics have changed and we have to look a little bit more broadly. Your work with the field programmable gate arrays tie into that. Please comment.
“….Technology has changed so much in the last 40 to 50 years that it behooves us to look back at some of the ideas that we looked at in the early days which were either dismissed or went down other paths, to see if they didn’t have more merit than we thought. The converse of that is that we should look at some things that we did adopt to see if they are still good ideas in light of the way that technology has moved on. I think that it is important to continuously innovate new things but sometimes it’s a good idea to look to the past….”
Does that speak to not only decreasing complexity but also driving toward simplicity as well?
“….In computing, complexity is the enemy. Everything should be done as possible to minimize the complexity of the systems that we build, because in complexity lurks error. We are now so dependent as a society on computing that errors are getting less and less acceptable. The only way I know to minimize the error rate is to minimize complexity….”
What were your specific drivers and goals for each of the labs you have started? What are the notable outcomes or contributions from these labs?
“….Xerox PARC was the first and possibly the most influential but possibly the least commercially successful (at least for the organization that sponsored the labs which was Xerox). There we were interested in the paperless office, although what we ended up doing was actually quite different. One of the nice things about PARC was that we were able to build systems that we could actually use ourselves….At DEC SRC we were much more aware of the need to make computers more accessible and more commercially oriented….The primary mission of Microsoft Research is to advance the field….”
What are the major goals for your current research, what are the challenges, what are the opportunities and implications?
“….What’s going to happen over the next few years is that we are not going to faster computers that can run a program or a single threaded program quickly, we are going to see more cores. Right now we are hard pressed to program those things and some of that is just programming and some of that is the way the computers are organized. That’s the area in which I am working right now. That was the purpose of the B3. My most recent project is the Beehive environment for exploring the many core architecture through field programmable gate arrays….”
What are the stages in the future evolution of field programmable gate arrays, the Berkeley Emulation Engine, Beehive, transactional memory, and Barrelfish?
“….Those things are all different. The B3 is a platform for doing research and it’s actually fairly expensive. Look to much simpler hardware platforms for the Beehive so that it is more accessible to a larger number of people. Since we are not a hardware company we can share these kinds of designs very freely for research purposes with the world and we do in fact do that….Barrelfish is actually a operating system that was developed as a joint effort between the people at our Cambridge lab and ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology)….We are using Barrelfish to try to figure out if that is a better way to organize many core computers more along the lines of a distributed system, rather than a lot of computers sharing a common memory….”
For the audience who aren’t familiar with the Berkeley emulation engine, can you give us an overview?
“….It’s a large printed circuit board that has on it four fairly large field programmable gate arrays and a large amount of input/output….You can think of it exactly what it’s called – programmable in the field, change what it does dynamically and it essentially supplies a large number of logic gates that you can use to implement anything that you describe as a verilog program….”
As an extension to the previous question, can you talk about Beehive?
“….Beehive is a specific example of a design that was done to map it into a field programmable gate array….”
Chuck comments on machine learning, collaborative filtering, the semantic web and quantum computing.
Past, present, and future — name three people who inspire you and why is this so?
“….I’ve been constantly inspired by my colleagues and collaborators. Externally (as an example), I would say Doug Engelbart. Within computing, Ivan Sutherland….Wesley Clark….”
You continue to make significant historical contributions. How will your growing status contribute to your vision for the world, society, industry, academia, and technology?
“….You have to realize that people like me, who are fundamentally researchers, are working below the radar to improve the world, I think….By and large we work in our laboratories doing what we do best and a lot of the benefits become part of civilization but people don’t really understand where they came from….”
Chuck, you laid many of the pillars for modern-day computing as one of the top groundbreaking visionary innovators. Distilling from your experiences, what are the greater burning challenges and research problems for today’s youth to solve to inspire them to go into computing?
“….When I was going to school we had Sputnik and that was a tremendous motivator for people to enter engineering and the sciences even though those subjects are quite difficult. We don’t really have that today and I suspect that is a large part of the reason that more kids don’t do it. What motivates kids? Well, kids like to build things so one of the things that I’m quite positive about is robotics….When I was young they had Heathkits (electronic kits that you could buy from the company and assemble them and do nice things. I was a ham radio operator and I built my radio station from a Heathkit.) Robotics in my view is the 21st century Heathkit and I think it offers a lot of opportunities….”
You choose the topic area. What do you see as the three top challenges facing us today and how do you propose they be solved?
“….We have to begin doing a better job at taking care of the planet and I think technology has a lot to say and do about that and computing will be a large part of that….Within computing we tend to look at the great things we have done but we should also be looking at the great things we haven’t done….Getting computers to really help people to carry out their daily tasks….”
Over your long and distinguished career, what are your top 3 lessons you want to share with the broad audience?
“….Choose your colleagues carefully to the extent that they help you and you will be more successful and the extent that you can help them and they will be more successful….Value simplicity and elegance….Pick your problems carefully…”
What are the two most significant challenges you could not overcome at the time and what would you do differently now?
“….The biggest challenge that we had at the Alto system and the stuff we developed at PARC was that the management didn’t understand the work….The other challenge is how to educate kids better….”