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Athima Chansanchaiwritten by
Athima Chansanchai
Computing legend continues to envision the future

In 1964, as a graduate student in physics at the University of California, Berkeley, Butler Lampson went looking for the Genie Project, a team researching a better way to share a computer among multiple users.

He was told to look for an unmarked door at the southeast corner of Cory Hall.

Lampson went through the door, then an empty room, then another door, until he found who he was looking for: a 14-year-old freshman named Peter Deutsch, a computer prodigy who would emerge as a leader on the project, along with Lampson.

The project influenced operating systems like Unix and forged techniques in computer hardware. It was more than enough to hook Lampson, who abandoned physics and eventually earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer sciences.

In walking through that door, he helped create a future that includes – but is not limited to – tablets, personal computers, printers and word processing programs. Thanks to an insatiable appetite for solving complex problems, he’s played a pivotal part in many of the biggest advances in technology over the last several decades.

“I look around for interesting things to do and I ask myself, is there any reasonable chance that I could make a dent in this interesting problem?” he said. “There is no shortage of problems that look interesting.”

Buter Lapson standing in a stairwell.

Now 74 and still engaged in the next technological breakthroughs, Lampson has been invited to join The Royal Society – the UK’s national science academy, with a fellowship of more than 1,600 of the world’s most eminent scientists – as a foreign member.

“This is the oldest scientific society in the world,” he said. “It's a great honor to be part of it.”

The Royal Society is, after all, the institution that published Isaac Newton’s “Principia” (the groundbreaking 1687 piece that delivered the laws of motion and universal gravitation), as well as Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment.

Lampson will go the UK in July to attend a three-day scientific symposium and induction ceremony for the Society.

It’s just the latest honor in a life decorated with awards, including the A.M. Turing Award in 1992. Lampson is also a member of the National Academies of Sciences and of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“If you want to see what a computer scientist is, look at Butler,” said Dr. Alan Kay, who has known Lampson for more than 50 years, first as a colleague and then as a teammate at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which developed a group of inventions that changed the way we work.

In the 1970s and early ‘80s at PARC, Lampson, Bob Taylor, Chuck Thacker, Kay and their colleagues made a number of breakthroughs: the Alto (the first PC, with graphics and networking), the Ethernet, early internetworking protocols, the laser printer, Bravo (predecessor to Microsoft Word), the graphical user interface and dynamic object-oriented programming.

In doing so, they were instrumental in creating “the office of the future,” something that Xerox had asked for without knowing what it was.

“He could have had a few Turing awards, not just one,” said Kay, himself a Turing Award winner. “In the research community we’re a part of, in theory no one would be the smartest person in the room because of the depth of talent, but we still all thought Butler was the smartest person in the room. He has a brilliant mind, scintillating, sharp and quick.”

“If you want to see what a computer scientist is, look at Butler.”

Lampson’s fast talking is legendary; he’s been known to deliver an hour-long talk on operating systems in 20 minutes. Kay said speed talking is measured in terms of his friend—a really speedy talker might get to .8 Lampsons.

“Butler can’t be too highly praised. He’s made deep, deep contributions to operating system theory, system theory in general – he’s a super systems guy – with a big technical background in physics and mathematics,” Kay said. “I thought that Butler was the clearest and best thinker of us all.”

Kay also recalls that, when PARC was in its first year, Lampson volunteered to design a central processing unit (the physical “heart” of a computer that includes electronic circuitry).

“He hadn’t done any hardware in any practical way, but he absolutely did it,” Kay said. “That was a jaw dropper.”

After PARC, Lampson went on to the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), where he worked on networks and on security for distributed systems. He also studied how various software components have failed and succeeded.

Butler has a really deep understanding of a culture that gives rise to true innovation.

There is also some technology he and his colleagues didn’t pursue at PARC which he wishes they had.

“The web we didn't do, I think, because the network wasn't yet big enough,” Lampson said. “But we certainly could have done spreadsheets. And I think the basic reason we didn't do them was that spreadsheets in their first few incarnations were for accountants, but there were no accountants among the researchers. Nowadays, of course, spreadsheets are used for lots of things that have nothing to do with accounting.”

In 1995 Lampson joined Microsoft Research, as recalled by Jennifer Chayes, now a Technical Fellow and managing director for the company’s New England lab.

“Butler helped me as Christian Borgs and I were setting up the lab,” she said. “He suggested we have a flat structure, which is unusual for a lab of our size. He recommended weekly all-hands meetings, to get together to talk about what’s going on with the lab and the world. The culture he helped us to build has resulted in phenomenal interdisciplinary work. Magical things happened. Butler has a really deep understanding of a culture that gives rise to true innovation.”

On entering the field, she learned of “Lampsons” as an informal measure of intelligence in computing circles.

Butler Lampson siting at a table.

When he thinks about the impact he’s made at the company, Lampson says his greatest contribution is the overall architecture of the early tablets that would eventually lead to the Surface devices. He said his most important decision was pushing for it to be a full-fledged PC.

“There was a lot of pressure to not do it that way, because it took a lot of compromises to accommodate all the idiosyncrasies of the PC of the year 2000,” Lampson said. “I felt very strongly at the time that this was the only realistic way to proceed, because the state of hardware was such that tablet PCs were going to be fairly expensive. And so if you couldn't run Windows and all its applications on it, very few people would want to buy one. That has changed quite a bit.”

He also thinks the company has changed for the better.

“I think we're doing great,” Lampson said. “You know, historically – with one outstanding exception, IBM – it’s been an iron rule that technology companies don't last more than 30 years. But it seems to me that Microsoft has a reasonable shot at a renaissance, because I think we are doing pretty well at changing our focus to new things that have a lot of potential, rather than clinging desperately to old things that still have some life left in them but don't have real growth prospects.”

For his 70th birthday in 2014, his family, friends and colleagues celebrated 50 years of his contributions to the field with LampsonFest, which had a guest list that read like who’s who in computing, including Kay and Thacker.

“It's traditional in the academic community to have a celebration on usually the 65th, sometimes the 60th, sometimes the 70th birthday of a colleague. This was my 70th. You don't get another one!” Lampson said. “The most striking thing for me was the very wide range of people from my past lives who came to celebrate. I've worked with a lot of people over the years, which is great. It was a little overwhelming, but I survived it.”

It was at that event, Chayes said, where Lampson gave a speech that stayed with her, and helped color the way she looks at innovation and technology. He talked about the different epochs of computing, starting in the 1950s with simulation (building and running a model of the real world inside a computer). Then around 1980 came the second epoch, communication, which led to the internet, email, the World Wide Web and Facebook.

“And now it’s all communication and connection. Butler thinks we’re entering a third epoch, in which computers mediate our interaction with physical world,” Chayes said. “This is the new frontier that is going to impact our lives as dramatically as the communication era. For me, this is a vision of the future.”

According to Lampson, that vision includes robots, natural user interfaces, sensor networks and self-driving cars.

“I think it's going to be an even bigger deal and have an even bigger impact than the first and second epochs,” Lampson said. “But this is a new field. In some parts of it we are making good progress. Computers are pretty good at recognizing pictures of kittens, for example. And nowadays when I write I use a dictation system, and I can get clean text quite a bit faster that way than by typing. But there are many, many other parts. We've only begun to scratch the surface.”

And his own work is far from over.

Lampson helped invent the Xerox Alto, widely considered the first PC.Lampson helped invent the Xerox Alto, widely considered the first PC. (Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

For Lampson, the intersection between technology and public policy is the current object of his formidable problem-solving skills.

“I've spent quite a bit of time looking for sensible ways to regulate how organizations use people's personal data. My work on this started about five years ago, and now we're seeing the kind of uproar that we're having with Facebook,” Lampson said.

“My basic thought is that there should be a technical and regulatory system which guarantees that you can exercise control over your own data,” he said. “And the most important aspect of exercising control, in my opinion, is that you can change your mind.”

Lampson said the way companies like Facebook have addressed these questions to date is to give notice when they’re collecting data.

“At the time, people often aren't very interested in the possible dangers, and they are going to change their minds as time goes on,” Lampson said. “So my view of this has been that different countries and different cultures are going to have different ideas of what the rules ought to be. But it should be possible to have common technical underpinnings that make it possible to implement a wide variety of rules about what constitutes legitimate use, what kind of use requires explicit positive action on the part of the people and what kinds of use are not allowed at all.”

He’s also spending a fair amount of time trying to figure out how to keep “internet of things” devices safe and secure.

There should be a technical and regulatory system which guarantees that you can exercise control over your own data. And the most important aspect of exercising control, in my opinion, is that you can change your mind.

“It's not such a huge problem right now. But I think it's very clear it's going to be a major issue in the not-too-distant future,” Lampson said. “Suppose you want to build an intelligent traffic light. It has cameras that look for oncoming traffic and for pedestrians; it talks to the neighboring traffic lights; it talks to the city's central traffic coordinator. It's probably got 30 million lines of code. It's full of bugs, because any 30 million lines of code is going to be full of bugs. But we don't want the light ever to turn green in both directions, because then someone might get killed. And we also don’t want anybody to hack into it and make it turn green in both directions.”

For a man whose brain power is a barometer both for generating ideas (and expressing them in speech) and for intelligence, he seems to measure his own life by the many blessings he’s had, including a marriage to a now-retired Harvard immunologist, raising two boys, enjoying two grandchildren, gourmet cooking and amassing an eclectic art collection.

“I don't see a great opportunity I've missed, or any great disaster which I was responsible for,” he said. “I've been incredibly lucky.”

Originally published on 5/9/2018 / Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft except where noted.
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