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Interview with Dr. Brian Kernighan


📷 Princeton University

Journalist: Haleema Ahmed



Haleema: Hello everyone. And welcome back to Scisection. I'm Haleema your journalist for this week and today we are delighted to have Dr. Brian Kernighan who has been a pioneer in the field of computing, authoring several books, working at Bell Labs, contributing to the development of several programs and also being a professor at Princeton University. Thank you so much, Dr. Kernighan for joining us today.


Brian: Well Haleema, it's a pleasure to be here. It's nice to be virtually back in Canada, even though not real, unfortunately.


Haleema: So you don't live in Canada right now, but I do have a couple of rapid fire questions for you, you could say. So what is your all time favourite place and favourite Canadian food?


Brian: Oh, geez. How rapid do you want to be? There's lots of places that, that I've enjoyed being in Canada. My family, I grew up in Toronto and then my family moved West. And so most of my contact these days is sort of if you draw a line from Kitchener over to Lake Huron. But but I've also enjoyed the Maritimes when I've been there and I've enjoyed BC places like Vancouver and Victoria, and I used to go skiing and Mont Blanc Quebec. So, you know, it's been all over the place and it's all been rather nice.


Haleema: Do you ever think that you're going to move back to Canada?


Brian: Yes I do. From time to time you know, global warming will make the climate better. And I won't say anything about the political climate in the United States, but there are attractions to going North absolutely.


Haleema: Definitely. I don't think I would ever move away from here. So next question, if you were not a computer scientist or the spark that never occurred that made you interested in computer science, what do you think your career would be like?


Brian: I don't know. I think it probably wouldn't be as well paid, but other than that, I think probably I would have wound up a historian in some sense. If I just look at what I do now, the things that I find intriguing when I'm not trying to do something in computing are digging in and around, you know, learning something, usually the diluent level about something, historical reading history and stuff like that, that I find intriguing was sort of interesting when I was in high school, but I never really got back to it until much later.


Haleema: That's quite a paradox because computer science is such like a modern thing and then history is kind of like old timey. So that's cool. Going very broad strokes, what do you think is the best tech device that you've ever used? Anything. It could be anything.


Brian: Oh, gee. Well, I don't know about anything. I still have a slide roller or you probably, those were your parents weren't even born when slide rollers were popular, but I was really good at the slide roll and that was a wonderful piece of technology, but very mature in the early sixties when I used it more modern stuff, obviously laptops are the thing that I use most of the time and I find those particularly handy and I don't want to use a cell phone because it's a nuisance that I don't want to be tracked that much. And I have an iPad here that if it weren't expensive and belonged to somebody else, I would just throw it out the window.


Haleema: Okay. And lastly, what is something about you that people would be surprised to find out?


Brian: I have no idea. And if I told you then it wouldn't be a surprise anymore, so that's not a very helpful answer, but it's the best I can come up with on short notice. Yeah.


Haleema: You know, that's, that's good enough for me. Okay. So I guess I'm going into now some of your work with computing. So you've been an early pioneer in this field. How did you kind of start off in the fifties and sixties when I presume a career like this was not very popular?


Brian: Yeah. There was, I think not much of a notion of, of a career in computing. When I was, let's say an undergraduate at U of T, that was between 1960 and 64 or something like that. I think I was probably in my third year before he even saw a computer. And, but I found that really intriguing. And so I did a little bit of programming in my fourth year. I think I spent the summer after my third year working at inferior oil and Toronto, it was doing programming. So that's really where it got started and I found it fun. It was just a lot of fun to do that kind of thing. And then when I went to grad school, I was able to do more of it. I've locked into some O some really, really good internships and some really good permanent jobs. So a lot of blind luck in this path. And certainly not planning because there wasn't really, at that time kind of a formal career in computing. And there certainly was before computer science departments really started. They started kind of in the late sixties, mid to late sixties just after I got out of undergraduate.


Haleema: So I guess computing technology, all of that has evolved really, really rapidly in the past few decades, I would say. And so how have you kind of seen this field of computing and all of that evolve from - evolve from where you started to kind of now?


Brian: So it's evolved in a bunch of ways. One is obviously the hardware is remarkably much more powerful. You get so much more hardware capability for any given amount of money at this point. And so that changes what you can do when I was in, well, roughly where you are at school at this point, let's say there was exactly one computer that served the whole university. And that computer by today's standards, you probably got more horsepower in your wristwatch. You, you need that computer maybe a lot more. And so obviously as computing power expands, several things happen. One is that you can do more with that computing. You have just a resource, so you can do all the kinds of things that we today take for granted. I think the other thing that happened is, is sort of a spread or a democratization in some sense of what you can do with computing to get more and more people who are able to do things with computers. And that's partly as we understand better how to use them, but also as they become cheap enough that people could have them. If there's only one computer in a city that's very different from everybody has a handful of computers in their home and another bunch in an office or something like that. So it completely depends on the activities and opportunities and so on. That's the big change that's been going on for at this point? What 60 years or more.


Haleema: Yup. And you also mentioned that you in your early career, you got to work in some really, really cool places for internships. I know one of them was Bell Labs, which has really contributed to some of the greatest developments of our time. You have like Nobel peace prize winners and really, really cool creations. So what was it like working at Bell Labs in your early career days?


Brian: It was actually quite a remarkable place. I had two summer internships while I was a grad student at Princeton at the time of Bell Labs was maybe Oh, 50, 60 kilometers away. And so I was in a group that was all people doing computing, but very early days in computing. And it was sort of a spinoff of the math department there. And so there was people who were interested in mathematical things, but on a much more practical way than you might get in say a pure math department someplace. And so that was part of it, just a lot of really, really good people. Some of whom were roughly my age and some were somewhat older. And then it was embedded in a very, very large research operation, meaning, you know, thousands of people who covered all kinds of areas of technology as well, and a lot of physical sciences, like physics, chemistry materials and so on. And a lot of the fundamental inventions of the time that were done at Bell labs were in those physical areas, like the transistor to pick the obvious one that, that kind of changed everything for most of us, but also things like fiber optics and lasers. And so on. A lot of those things were either invented at Bell Labs or you know, the major components of the evolution happened at Bell Labs. And so all of that made it just a really, really amazing place to be. And the other thing is the funding was pretty good. They paid you well and let you do what you want. It's kind of hard to argue. It was bad.


Haleema: Yeah. I, I know in some of your other interviews, you've mentioned that the work environment, it was quite like exploratory. There was a lot, you know, there was no limits to it. I know something really surprising you mentioned somewhere was like every year they would give you a piece of paper and you'd write down what you did, and then they give you your paycheck because of that. And I think that's a really, really cool working, working environment. And I don't think it's many, much comparable to anything that exists today. Could you maybe talk a little bit about that?


Brian: Yeah. I think you're right. It was absolutely quite wonderful because it meant that you could take on long term things. You could think about something for more than say the next three months without worrying too much about it. I think it worked well because of Bell Labs, which was a big operation itself, was actually quite a small part of a very, very large company ATMT which in effect provided telephone service for most of the United States. And at the time H and T was a regulated public monopoly, which meant that they were controlled by the government, but they got a pretty guaranteed rate of return on their investment. And every time anybody made a phone call, a little tiny slice of that would be peeled off and given to Bell Labs with the expectation that Bell Labs would use that to improve telephone service. But since it was telephone service for the whole country and lots and lots of people, they could take a very broad view of what it meant to improve service. And so that meant people, you know, figuring out how to make better telephone poles at one end, but it also meant people thinking about how you program computers, how do you build devices that will make electronics work better and all those other things that were basically going on in the research operation. So it was kind of a nice coincidence of total stability, no shortage of resources, really financial and management who was pretty enlightened about making good use of that. So the combination worked out really well. I don't know whether that kind of environment would happen again in today's age, particularly when lots of companies are driven by much more short term kinds of things. If they don't show a profit in the next six months or a year, they may be out of business period. So it's in many ways a different environment.


Haleema: That's actually something I wanted to talk to you a little bit about, because I feel like Bell Labs is a really, really pivotal place for it. Maybe somebody like you who really got a lot of your early start there. I guess what I wanted to ask was, I guess, as you, as you're a computer science teacher at Princeton, how do you kind of think that some of the values that were instilled in you in that kind of working environment could be applied to, I guess, the next generation of computer science, whether that be maybe not even in the companies that they're working in, but just in the places that they're learning, like the universities to colleges, that kind of thing.


Brian: Yeah. That's an interesting question. I think part of what I got out of the Bell Labs experience was an appreciation for how important it is to work with people who are really good and, you know, enjoy the people that you work with. And in some sense, get the best out of that arrangement. And so certainly at Bell Labs, I probably everybody felt this way, but boy, I looked at those people and I thought, my God, they're all much smarter than I am now. What? And so it was like, if you play tennis or something, you want to play with people who are better than you are, because that helps you improve your game. And I think that was certainly something that worked for me at Bell Labs. And I suspect that that would work for people in lots of different fields that working with people who are really, really good at what they do, you will get better at what you do as well. And the other thing was that at the labs, partly there was this very long term thinking about stuff. So you could actually work on something for a long period of time. It doesn't like you didn't do short term stuff, but if you had an idea and you really wanted to push it, you could do it for quite a while and you didn't really have to justify it to management very much. And so an environment where that kind of thing is supported, I think is again, very helpful. And it's hard to do that if let's say you're a very small company, or if your company has got too many competitors all trying to eat your lunch at the same time. So you get more of that perhaps in a university, but then you have a different problem in university. You have to have funding, you have to get money to do whatever you want. And again, that wasn't a problem at Bell Labs, the funding was very stable. So those are the kinds of things that I think help. The other thing that sort of a personal level. I - it's useful to just be interested in a lot of different things and sort of if something comes along and you think, gee, that's kind of interesting. Try to explore it at least briefly learn some more about it. And it was easy again, to do that in an environment where you didn't have to kind of have a good result by tomorrow or something like that. So it keeps coming back to st. Gee, that was really nice then if I don't know whether it works that well at this point, and you know, certainly students ask me from time to time for career planning advice. And she's my advice is, I don't know, you kind of roll downhill and you run into a rock and you need to go left or right. And you know, which one's gonna work out better. But if you kind of think fairly often about, well, what was fun? What wasn't fun, where am I going roughly? But don't worry too much about the individual details. Maybe it works out okay.


Haleema: That advice is definitely applicable to anybody who's listening right now, whether you're into computer science or whatever. I find even myself, I try to focus too much on like plan A plan B plan C when life is not built like that. I guess that was something I needed to hear. I guess now segwaying into a little bit more about like modern technology and today I wanted to ask you, what is, what do you think is the biggest issue kind of plaguing the computing community today, computing community - it's hard to say - computing community today? Is it like security? Is it viruses? What, what, what is it?


Brian: In the mail you sent me a while ago, you had a long list of these things. And I thought to myself, all of the above, because, you know, you mentioned security. Yes, that's a problem. Viruses and things like that. That's absolutely a problem. So one big obvious problem, I think for everybody and probably true for younger folks is this whole notion that where wherever you go or whatever you do, you're being watched, it's the idea of surveillance capitalism. So you know, every time you do any kind of transaction, you use your phone, you use your computer, you buy something, you go into a store, whatever a record is being made of what happened there. And sometimes it includes things like pictures of you and certainly of anything you did that involved money, anything like that. And so that means that we were being watched all the time and an enormous amount of data is being collected about us. And it's used in a variety of ways, mostly obviously, to target advertising advertisers who could target you very differently than me. But they would do that. And then some of it is probably also meant to influence in ways that are not just commercial, but also political or something like that, too. Again, they might target you and me differently politically just by virtue of knowing what we did, who we did it with when we did it, all those kinds of things. So I think that kind of surveillance commercial, but also governmental is a serious issue. It goes along, there's obviously a privacy issue related to that. You don't want governments, companies, whatever, bad guys to know everything about your life. You really don't. There's also a security issue in there that all that information has been collected. He can hardly pick up the paper in the morning without seeing example of some database that's been exposed. And all of this information has been collected about you and me and everybody else has been sold off to somebody where they can then do something like steal our identity or our money or whatever. So I worry about all of those kinds of things. That's sort of personal, it's affecting you and me. And then there's all this nutcase stuff of conspiracy theories and racism and hatred of people, for whatever reasons and stuff like modern technology in particular, the internet has just made that far worse than it ever was, because if you're crazy and I'm crazy in a similar way, but we would never meet, then it wouldn't matter that much. But if you and I can get together with, you know, when we discovered there's another a hundred people who are just crazy, but like us, then we can get together and do something because of the ease of communication. And so that's another, I think a major problem in today's society kind of worry about that one as well. Politics, (inaud politics politics in the United States is just a disaster. Obviously. I mean, the politicalization of a pandemic is just madness. I think it's better in Canada, but there, you know, there, there are puzzles there too, and certainly the pandemic Canada doing vastly better than the United States, but that's, it's weak praise in some sense. And so there's lots of those kinds of things. So politics enters into all of this sort of stuff. And again, things like the internet appeared to exacerbate the political aspects, make it worse in various ways, make it easier to divide us. And it also makes it easier for bad guys to reach in kind of twist a knife in some way that will make you go in one direction and you go in another direction and not get along with each other where we in person we might well have. It's always, again, this is gloomy, isn't it? Sorry.


Haleema: Yeah, no, definitely. I completely am hearing what you're saying. I wanted to ask you to two things. So one thing on there's a lot of news on social media about how Facebook is kind of, not even Facebook, Facebook, Twitter, a lot of that is kind of like manhandling freedom of speech. So, you know, like you could say President Donald Trump is going to put out something completely false as he often does. And then Twitter would move it and then everybody will get mad because they're kind of hiding conservative voices. And then at the same time I guess there is an aspect of freedom of speech. And then there's also the aspect of kind of harboring for the truth. What is your kind of 2 cents on that of like social media companies interacting with politics. And then, I don't know, it's just a whole soup of stuff.


Brian: That's right. It reduces us to sputtering. I think that the observed fact is that social media and in particular Facebook, but arguably also Twitter and probably others have whether they sought it or not far more influence than is good for anybody, I think. And it's very hard. I think given just this year scale of things for them to control it, in some sense, I mean, Facebook, I don't know what the number is, but they've got roughly a third of the world's population using Facebook. And so there's no way that you can manually weed out the nutcases, the lies and all of this kind of stuff. You can do some of it, but, but mostly you can't do it reliably. And then there is the call it the free speech kind of argument. In principle, you should be able to say what you want, so you can stand on a corner and say something, whatever, and people should say, okay, she's crazy, but it's okay. But the question is whether a commercial company like let's call it, Facebook should be required to let you stand on a worldwide street corner and say crazy things to a whole bunch of people simultaneously. And I don't know how to balance those things. And of course when I say something, that's my free speech, please. And when you say something, no you're saying something wrong and therefore you should be suppressed in some way. And so it's like, come at it again from one of these polarized, a different viewpoint positions. So I'm kind of pessimistic about the short run. At least I don't know how we balance these kinds of things. Certainly in the United States and probably elsewhere. There's a lot of talk about antitrust actions against big companies that are influential here. Particularly Google is another one. But Facebook would be a clearcut target as well, whether that would have an effect or not, I don't know. Or whether that would just fragmented into smaller companies that were similarly a little not doing the world of good.


Haleema: I think definitely there was an equation we would have found it by now, but there's just, there's so much another thing I wanted to ask you, we discussed a little bit about privacy in the beginning. This is kind of a selfish question, but okay. Let's say that I'm like, I'm talking about a pair of shoes that I want to get and I'm just talking to my mom about it and then I'll go on my phone and I'll get like an ad for it. And then I'll, I don't know. I'll see it on my browser. It's just so weird. I don't know what, what is that all about?


Brian: Well, that's exactly what we talked about. That's surveillance capitalism at work. Now the difference is I don't see nearly as much of that because I actively turn on a bunch of defenses. So I don't use my phone except when I have to. So my phone is turned off. That's easy for me. It might be hard for you depending on your social life and your family life and all these other kinds of things, but turn your phone off. I, I turn off location services, so they don't know where you are physically at at least to the same degree of precision in your browser, there's all kinds of useful defenses that you can turn on for crying out loud, turn them on. Okay, you should turn on things like ad block and Ghostery, a new matrix and all these other things that reduce the tracking. Same thing goes on the phone itself and don't let him download random apps. And when you install an app, turn off all the permissions, it doesn't need and so on. So you can do a lot of that kind of thing. And so you can get rid of make up a number 90% of that stuff fairly effectively. I think the other thing you'll discover is all your devices run faster because they're not downloading all that stuff. And so you can in that way, improve your life and not be quite so visible. You can't get away from it completely and they can certainly spot you on the street. You know, I'm distinctive Curtis to differ. Everybody's distinctive in some way, so you've got cameras there. So the other thing that I suppose at some point is to get involved in the political system in some way to try and get the people who represent you parliament or whatever to take action on for the benefit of the ordinary folk, as opposed to the benefit of whoever's bankrolling their campaign for the next election. I think I'm more cynical about the American use of money in politics than Canadian. Cause I'm not as close to Canadian political system at this point. But I think in the long run, if the government can't be induced to do something about this situation, aren't going to get better. Meantime, you can do stuff for yourself. You really can.


Haleema: I think I definitely will look into that as well, because it's really creepy sometimes. Another thing I wanted to ask, so now coding is a really, really important skill in every single job. They always say, if you have coding that's, that's a really big like, I guess step forward, like you could say. I have tried so many programming languages, but I don't know maybe it's just not in my blood. I've tried, like, I don't know how advanced these are, but like I've tried Python and Java and Processing. I don't even know what else. I've never been able to stick to one or really master one and I think that applies to a lot of people. What is your kind of advice for that?


Brian: I think, well, first I think programming is not for everybody. There are people who just don't want to do it. And in some way, maybe there are people who are wired better for it or not. So well for it. I think however, anybody can do it in the same way that anybody can learn to read and write and anybody can do arithmetic. But I think the thing that is hard in the abstract is say, I'm going to learn a programming language I'm going to learn place on, right? And so you can read Python books until you turn blue and it won't stick. So what you have to do is to write programs, find something that you care enough about and then force yourself to use Python. Let's say to do that. And of course, if you're just trying to get a job done, then you use whatever's easiest, like do it by hand or an Excel spreadsheet or whatever. But if it's something where you find that sort of combination of, I really want to get this job done, but I also want to invest the energy to do it in let's call it Python. I think that's the way to do it, but you got to get in there and actually do it. And in some point you get over the hump, it's probably like learning to speak another language and it has the same properties. No, I studied French in high school for five years. This was when Ontario still had grade 13 and Oh geez. Well, it never really stuck. I mean, I can read French painfully and and I can write it very badly and speaking it is and that's something where I never quite got over the humps sort of in the way that you're hinting at with programming. And so, but I think if I were in an environment where in some sense I had to do it, if there was something really compelling that reading want to communicate with a particular person who was only French, then that would get me over the hump. And so is there as a parallel perhaps something like that for you and your programming?


Haleema: I think I like that comparison of programming languages to regular languages because there are definitely so many programming languages and then so many as well. I think my last question for you is since you were such an, I guess early figure in this field of computing, where do you kind of see yourself in the future continuing?


Brian: Well, I hope to actually be here and in the future. So and so who knows. But I, you know, I'm having a lot of fun doing what I do. I mean, it's reading good universities are great to hang around. I mean, you know this as a student and I see it as faculty member as well. So if I can keep doing that, I think that will be helpful. The kids in my classes and the ones I just meet randomly and help keep me alive and young and, and doing things trying to explain whatever or listening to them, explain what they're doing. And so I think being in that kind of environment where I can continue to at least connect with other people who are doing interesting things will keep me going for some while as well. I hope


Haleema: I think your students must absolutely love you as well. This conversation was amazing. Thank you so much again for joining us today for Scisection. It was a pleasure.


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