Donald Knuth: “I trust my family jewels only to Linux”

Andrew Binstock interviewed Donald Knuth recently, and one of the more amusing tidbits was this:

I currently use Ubuntu Linux, on a standalone laptop—it has no Internet connection. I occasionally carry flash memory drives between this machine and the Macs that I use for network surfing and graphics; but I trust my family jewels only to Linux.

More seriously, I found his comments about about multi-core computers to be very interesting:

I might as well flame a bit about my personal unhappiness with the current trend toward multicore architecture. To me, it looks more or less like the hardware designers have run out of ideas, and that they’re trying to pass the blame for the future demise of Moore’s Law to the software writers by giving us machines that work faster only on a few key benchmarks! I won’t be surprised at all if the whole multithreading idea turns out to be a flop, worse than the “Itanium” approach that was supposed to be so terrific—until it turned out that the wished-for compilers were basically impossible to write.

Let me put it this way: During the past 50 years, I’ve written well over a thousand programs, many of which have substantial size. I can’t think of even five of those programs that would have been enhanced noticeably by parallelism or multithreading. Surely, for example, multiple processors are no help to TeX….

I know that important applications for parallelism exist—rendering graphics, breaking codes, scanning images, simulating physical and biological processes, etc. But all these applications require dedicated code and special-purpose techniques, which will need to be changed substantially every few years.

This is a very interesting issue, because it raises the question of what next-generation CPU’s need to do in order to be successful. Given that it is no longer possible to just double the clock frequency every 18 months, should CPU architects just start doubling the number of cores every 18 months instead? Or should they try to concentrate a lot more computing power into an individual core, and optimize for a fast and dense interconnect between the CPU’s? The latter is much more difficult, and the advantage of doing the first is that it’s really easy for marketing types to use some cheesy benchmark such as SPECint to help sell the chip, but then people find out that it’s not very useful in real life.

Why? Because programmers have proven that they have a huge amount of trouble writing programs that take advantage of these very large multicore computers. Ultimately, I suspect that we will need a radically different way of programming in order to take advantage of these systems, and perhaps a totally new programming language before we will be able to use them.

Professor Knuth is highly dubious that the later approach will work, and while I hope he’s wrong (since I suspect the hardware designers are starting to run out of ideas, so it’s time software engineers started doing some innovating), he’s a pretty smart guy, and he may well be right. Of course, another question is whether what would we do with all of that computing power? Whatever happened to the predictions that computers would be able to support voice or visual recognition? And of course, what about the power and cooling issues for these super-high-powered chips? All I can say is, the next couple of years is going to be interesting, as we try to sort out all of these issues.