“We depend too much on technology: turn off notifications and don’t look at your mobile every five minutes”
John Hennessy (New York, 1952) and David Patterson (Illinois, United States, 1947) are not just any two people in computer science. His work during the 70’s on the call computer architecture (the way in which these devices are built) allowed their manufacture to be standardized and their efficiency improved, giving way to the current technology boom and that of past decades. Hennessy is also the current president of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and has been president of Stanford University. Patterson, for his part, was a professor at the University of Berkeley for 40 years until 2016. Both won the Turing Prize in 2017 for their contribution to computer science.
In the same way, the BBVA Foundation announced this week that it has awarded the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Information and Communication Technologies to both for “founding as a new scientific area computer architecture, the discipline that designs the brain of every computer system, its central processor ”. Together, they created the RISC system, the acronym in English for computers with reduced instruction set, which is still valid in current computers (used by about 99% of the products on the market, according to ACM data. “We are in a new golden age of computers”, they say in this interview conducted by videoconference.
Question. When they started working, the computer architecture was a mess, with all the manufacturers operating on their own. Is that so?
David Patterson. Computers had been designed decades ago, and they had been developed in a particular way. What was relatively new were the microprocessors. Its emergence led us to the idea that things had to be done in a completely different way. Above all, due to the so-called Moore’s Law, which since 1965 states that approximately every two years the number of transistors in a microprocessor doubles. Now, microprocessors are more powerful than central units (mainframe computers).
P. How would you explain the system you came up with, RISC, to a person who has no idea about computers?
D. P. Well, John and I have a lot of experience with that question… When a show (software) talks to the machine (hardware) uses a vocabulary. The name of that vocabulary is instruction set (instruction set). We can imagine a vocabulary that has long words of many syllables. If we read a novel composed with those words, it would take us longer, because it would be more difficult to understand. The alternative is to have many more shorter words, which would allow you to read more quickly even if the novel was longer. The question is, where is the balance between the two ways to achieve the greatest efficiency? In the end, we found that it was four times faster to use a shorter and simpler vocabulary. At first it was a controversial question, and almost philosophical.
P. Can it be said in any way that your work has allowed the boom in technology that we are experiencing?
John Hennessy: Well, we were motivated by all the changes that were taking place. And I think it’s a good reminder that whenever there’s a big change, like the one that was happening back then with the jump to microprocessors, you should always look back and review how you are troubleshooting and asking if that way is still valid.
P. What did computers look like at that time?
J. H. They were huge computers and central units. The computer that we used to develop our work was the VAX-11/780 [un ordenador comercializado en 1977 por Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), empresa que fue adquirida por Compaq en los 90 y esta, a su vez, por Hewlett Packard en 2002,], which cost between $ 250,000 and $ 500,000, and was much slower than any smartphone today.
D. P. It was the size of a refrigerator. I remember teaching class and saying “one day a single chip will be faster than this refrigerator”… It was so big that it took time for electricity to reach all its components. At that moment, the students laughed, they believed that the bigger the faster …
P. Are we experiencing a golden age of computers, not only traditional ones, but also thanks to mobiles and other devices? Do you dare to forecast where we are headed, given that Moore’s Law is coming to an end?
D. P. Absolutely. In the past, half the development had to do with advances in semiconductors, and the other half with what John and I do, how we put these devices together. Due to the end of Moore’s Law and the fact that people continue to want their computers to get faster and faster, the burden will increasingly fall on architecture. This is going to be the decade of computer architecture.
J. H. This can be seen on the Apple M1 chip [el primero que la compañía ha instalado en sus Mac tras su ruptura con Intel] that combines specific processors for each task. We are making the leap towards general processors towards component specialization for more efficiency. The key is specialization: making small computers that do one thing more efficiently.
P. What do you think of quantum computers? Will they be a viable alternative?
D. P. I’m curious to hear from John about this. It’s exciting technology, but there will be 20 or 30 things it can do, and they are large computers, too – there will be no quantum phones. These devices will be housed in data centers. It would not be efficient
J. H. I think the area that is being worked on are what we call near-intermediate quantum, looking for applications that can work with smaller computers, because in the short or medium term these computers will not be able to solve major problems. Applications are being sought, it is a hunt in progress, there are none killer application (successful application that leads to an advancement of a technology).
D. P. And then there is the issue of the cold with which they have to operate. And it’s not going to do much good for machine learning either (machine learning) because it is difficult to enter data in these devices.
P. Do you think we depend too much on computers and technology in general today?
J. H. I think it might. But it’s simple: turn off notifications and don’t check your mobile every five minutes. That would create a healthier lifestyle. Of course, it requires some discipline.
D. P. I am part of the television generation. I grew up with it, some parents let their children see what they want when they want. Not mine, they imposed restrictions on me. It is the same with technology: if you allow your children to use the internet and technology in general all the time, you are probably not raising them in the right way. You’re not going to have a balanced life, especially with the pandemic, if all you do is watch Netflix. Or videogames …
It’s one thing to do your job, especially during the pandemic, and because computers exist … I wouldn’t have a job to start with. Technology is enabling, but it is also addictive and seductive. It is dangerous to use it too much, but I am not sure what the solution is.
D. P. There is a celebrated visionary in computer science named Alan Kay. 40 years ago he had a revolutionary idea called the Dynabook [Dynabook es la actual marca con la que Toshiba comercializa sus ordenadores] His definition was that “the computer so important that if you left it at home, you had to turn around to go get it.” What he was talking about, we see now, was from the mobile phone. It is a critical technology that we use a lot. Worse I can’t fault people who create products that people love to use. Scientists are asked to be careful what they believe due to its consequences, but this is a popularity problem.
P. Do you think we should limit what machines are capable of learning to do?
D. P. My colleague Stewart J. Russell is one of the great promoters of artificial intelligence and has written some of the most famous works on artificial intelligence. He is one of those who has started to define rules about what computers can do before it becomes sensitive. And, although this is not my area, I believe that the danger is still distant, perhaps a century or more. I am already impressed with the things that machines can do. Especially driverless cars: when this technology is implemented, hundreds of billions will be saved in traffic accidents. It will have the same importance as the emergence of the internet.
J. H. It does not mean that you have to worry about technology. All technologies have good and bad uses. Artificial intelligence can become a very powerful weapon, and there should be international agreement that it should never be used. We have to reach agreements. And, of course, there will also be economic imbalances, just like the Industrial Revolution. But new opportunities will also be created.