This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I interview ACM-Infosys Foundation Award Recipient, Eric Brewer: World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Leader for Tomorrow, Industry Standard’s Most Influential Person, InfoWorld’s Top 10 Innovators, Technology Review’s TR100, Forbes’ 12 “e-mavericks, elected member National Academy of Engineering.
Prof. Eric A. Brewer, Professor of Computer Science, UC Berkeley Jim Gray Chair of Computing
Dr. Brewer focuses on all aspects of Internet-based systems, including technology, strategy, and government. As a researcher, he has led projects on scalable servers, search engines, network infrastructure, sensor networks, and security. His current focus is (high) technology for developing regions, with projects in India, Ghana, and Uganda among others, and including communications, health care, education, and e-government.
In 1996, he co-founded Inktomi Corporation with a Berkeley grad student based on their research prototype, and helped lead it onto the NASDAQ 100 before it was bought by Yahoo! in March 2003.
In 2000, he founded the Federal Search Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization focused on improving consumer access to government information. Working with President Clinton, Dr. Brewer helped to create USA.gov, the official portal of the Federal government, which launched in September 2000.
He was recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering for leading the development of scalable servers (early cloud computing), and also received the ACM Mark Weiser award for 2009. He received an MS and Ph.D. in EECS from MIT, and a BS in EECS from UC Berkeley. He was named a “Global Leader for Tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum, by the Industry Standard as the “most influential person on the architecture of the Internet”, by InfoWorld as one of their top ten innovators, by Technology Review as one of the top 100 most influential people for the 21st century (the “TR100”), and by Forbes as one of their 12 “e-mavericks”, for which he appeared on the cover.
BEARS Conference 2010:http://www.eecs.berkeley.edu/BEARS/
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Eric shares when he heard about this extraordinary honour as recipient of the ACM-Infosys Foundation Award, how he felt at the time and the reaction from his colleagues and his family.
Describe your journey into computing from your youth up to the present. What foundational lessons did you learn from this journey? Why were you initially attracted to computing?
“….I was initially attracted to engineering, things like Lego, Erector sets and building blocks….mechanical engineering. My dad was an electrical engineer….so I had an EE exposure….I really didn’t get into computer science until the Apple II came along around the 1980’s when I learned Basic and got interested in programming. From that point on I switched from an electrical engineering focus into software….”
What were the major hurdles that you faced during your career and how did you overcome them? Which ones still exist today?
“….I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career. The hurdles were ones that anyone finds – things like ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to be?’….I didn’t have a whole lot of obstacles other than deciding how to be focused and how to be productive….”
It sounds like there weren’t any roadblocks that you weren’t able to overcome?
“….Trying to do a company and trying to get tenure at the same time, I would say that was a challenge. But at the same time, the opportunity to do scalable servers and Inktomi was too big an opportunity to pass up and I thought I had to try it even if it meant putting my tenure at jeopardy. I still got tenure, so at the end of the day it was the right call to do both….”
Can you talk about the kinds of technologies that you innovated that were the basis of the company?
“….Our innovation was to show how to build a supercomputer using a whole bunch of commodity nodes and in particular how to make that supercomputer fault tolerance so that it would be highly available in the presence of all kinds of different faults. That’s the way how all modern services are built….”
When you look around you at your life and career, whose work inspires you?
“….That is a long list but one is Jim Gray, Turing award winner in 1998 for a lot of early work in databases….Barbara Liskov, who won the Turing award last year, had some influence on me as well in quite different ways including things like data extraction and even how she thought about semantics….”
How would you describe your top three to six innovative achievements in terms 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?
“….Scalable clusters – all modern systems that are in the clouds are built using clusters and they use many of the same techniques that we pioneered….The CAP Theorem which is a theorem which explains (roughly) what are the limitations when you want to build these large scale services and some of the fundamental tradeoffs you have to make…..Another thing we did which is not widely known….the concept of personalized pages – we were the first to do on a large scale….The work we did in 1998 was the work on how do we browse the web from a phone (at the time it would have been a PDA but now it would be a smart phone)….The ability to go very long distances using off-the-shelf wi-fi has allowed us to connect rural villages into urban hospitals and to use that for tele-medicine….”
What was the genesis for Brewer’s “Wireless Hypothesis” and what are the key initiatives you are driving, want to start, and the long term goals you want to achieve?
“….This was a hypothesis I made in about 2002-2003 and there is some evidence that it is coming true….Economists have now shown that mobile penetration does in fact have a positive impact on GDP. For every additional 10% penetration of mobile phones into a country its GDP goes up by 0.8%. That’s evidence that a country has become more productive because of the deployment of wireless and therefore it’s not too big a leap to say that more infrastructure will get deployed in those areas because now there is more money to support those infrastructures….That is something that has personally driven me to work on world connectivity issues….”
This is through the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions project sponsored by the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society at UC Berkeley?
“….That is a group that has a lot of combinations of technology and other disciplines and I head the part that’s in charge of the intersection of technology and development. I had to learn a lot about social science and development in the process of working on this but I view that as a positive….”
Can you profile your future research, its challenges, opportunities, and implications?
“….Over the next ten years we will be driven (more than anything else), by mobile phones and access to the clouds and that overall combination….”
Do you see the evolution of smart phones where it becomes very intuitive, natural and part of a person’s experience no matter where they are in the world?
“….I think that IT is going to move from what’s classically been PC’s to really a combination of mobile devices and the cloud. All of my future research I would expect will be either on the cloud or on mobile devices….”
If you were to extend out our research (10-20 years), do you see the approaching of Kurzweil’s concept of singularity where you have an amalgamation of computers and humans?
“….The way you get the singularity is in fact via the cloud, more so than on an individual handheld device….For quite a while (most of that 10-20 years probably) you won’t have high bandwidth to the cloud from most locations, that will limit some of the things you can do so you are going to have to do some processing on the phone in order to reduce the amount of data you need to send to the cloud to achieve your goal….Once you are to the cloud you can truly do arbitrary computations for each user….”
Do you see an intersection between machine learning, semantic web, collaborative filtering, and perhaps 30 years out, quantum computing?
“…..Quantum computing is harder to know how it fits in but certainly the first three all go well together. The data you get in the clouds and the scale that makes machine learning work much better than before and the extent that the cloud is intelligent is because it has good statistics and lots and lots of data. It’s doing relatively simple inference but on an incredible scale.The role for quantum computing is that for certain types of computations it might be able to exponentially improve how they can be done….”
Do you think that cloud computing implies a further build-up of collaborative filtering and this whole concept of tying in with social sciences, behavioural therapy and Swarm theory?
“….The cloud makes a lot of these other disciplines more relevant to computer users and I think you will see all kinds of work….One of the advantages of the cloud is that the data is shared data….It is much better for group applications….”
What will social networking look like in 10 years?
“…..The short answer is I don’t know but I can say that there are a few things that will affect it. One is right now I don’t think that most users comprehend the consequences of forfeiting their privacy….I don’t think that people appreciate the permanence of things that show up in the cloud….There’s going to have to be some social dialog about what is private and what’s not and what rights do you have over time about your data that’s in the clouds….”
Associated with the clouds would be issues like it’s loosely coupled, storage of data and that kind of issues. Can you comment?
“….It’s a combination of a lot more data being stored about individuals, the fact that most people have not comprehended what that means for their future and what risks they are taking by having data in the clouds and there is more sharing of data both implicit and explicit so it harder to know where that data is going to be used. Privacy policies are supposed to help with that but they don’t today because people aren’t that demanding about their privacy policies….”
Over your distinguished career, what are your top lessons, you want to share with the broad audience?
“….If you believe it something, it is worth taking the risk….Focus on people who are secure in who they are because they make good long term partners….”
If you could sum up your life experiences with career tips for the ICT professional, what would be your tips and the reasons behind them?
“…You can’t do your best work if you’re not passionate about it….If you know what you are passionate about, I believe that the opportunities will arise….”
Can you summarize your top predictions for the future, their implications, and how executives and IT professionals can best prepare?
“….As big as the cloud is already it’s going to get bigger and more important….All countries (including the US) need to think about rural access to the clouds….”
Eric, you laid many of the pillars for modern-day giant data centers that make possible search, email, social networks, mapping, and other Internet services, and also enable cloud computing. As one of the top groundbreaking visionary innovators, how do you wish to continue to shape the world and contribute to the fabric of history?
“….At least for the next five years I would say that a large part of that effort is going to be on really bringing technology to developing regions and trying to give them the same benefits of communications and computing in the clouds that we are experiencing here. Beyond that it is hard to say but I expect to do more work on the cloud side of things, including new ways to manage data, and I’ll probably eventually start thinking about other kinds of data such as the privacy issues….It may be that privacy issues may be in practice the limiting factor of the clouds until they get resolved….”
How are you managing the funding of these projects?
“….That is one of the challenges. It is relatively easy getting funding for the cloud computing related things. Getting funding for research on technology and development is actually quite a bit harder. The core reason I think is that it is multi-disciplinary and most funding tends to be around one discipline. When you are combining things like social science and computer science, it’s actually a little bit trickier to get funding for that….”
What do you see as the top challenges facing us today and how do you propose they be solved?
“….I think we do have to address the broad sense of divide worldwide. The side effect of good communications and globalization is that many more people are aware of what they don’t have, so that is somewhat unsustainable….I’m an optimist by nature and I think technology can provide more hope…”
Increasingly there is attention being given to IT as a profession with recognized professional certification, adherence to a code of ethics, demonstrated professional development, alignment with a common body of knowledge and best practices. These concepts are encapsulated in IT Professionalism. Can you share your views on IT Professionalism?
“….I’m okay in moving forward on the ethic side but on the best practices and development side I would rather see us run unconstrained for another decade and just produce as many good software people as we can….A lot of traditional software development came from the same reasoning behind the building of physical things, more traditional engineering, which is that you have to build it right the first time because you won’t have a chance to fix it. True enough for traditional software that’s going out on a CD – it’s actually quite expensive to fix that after it’s been sent out so you really do want to get it right the first time – and certainly if you are writing software that is going to control an airplane you want to get it right the first time. But there is wide range of software which is a service running in the cloud and if you make a mistake you can update it a half hour later and everybody experiences the benefit of that repair immediately….It focuses much more on how do you react, how do you innovate quickly, how do you deploy or roll back things quickly if you deploy a mistake….”
If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
“…’Why should people go into IT?’…..”