Michael Stonebraker On Six Weeks of Turing Award Travels

ISTC for Big Data co-founder and MIT CSAIL professor Michael Stonebraker received the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2014 A.M. Turing Award for his contributions to the field of database management systems (DBMSs), including creating multiple successful database companies to commercialize these advancements. The Turing Award, often referred to as “the Nobel Prize of computing,” carried a $1 million prize from Google – and offered Professor Stonebraker the opportunity to travel the world in 2015 delivering his Turing Award talk. Here is his story about what he did and observed during those travels.  

Michael Stonebraker 2014 Turing Award Winner.Photo Credit M Scott Bruner

Michael Stonebraker, 2014 Turing Award Winner. Photo Credit: M Scott Brauer

In the last half of 2015,  I traveled to:

This post summarizes some of my observations from this whirlwind.

FCRC was pretty scary. After all, I was giving a very unconventional talk (far outside the box) and the audience (1000 or so people) were not DBMS folks. Essentially, I was giving a talk to people I didn’t know.  Also, when a talk is being filmed, the room is completely dark, so it is impossible to see how the audience is reacting. Anyway, all I can say is that I got through the talk without stumbling.

I had expected the awards ceremony to be pretty dull. I was pleasantly surprised how touching it was for me. About 30 friends and DBMS researchers attended, and it felt like a mini-reunion. Equally touching was a reception organized by Paula Hawthorn at Berkeley the previous afternoon. This was a reunion of Ingres/Postgres/Illustra people, many of whom I had not seen in years.

VLDB was “my tribe,” and it was a wonderful experience to realize what the Turing Award means for the validity of system software as a research area. I guess I am walking proof that a practitioner can win what has recently often been an award for theoretical contributions.

“…It was a wonderful experience to realize what the Turing Award means for the validity of system software as a research area.  I guess I am walking proof that a practitioner can win what has recently often been an award for theoretical contributions.”

Visiting universities is exhausting, or I am getting old, or both. It is a 9AM to 9PM talkathon. I am reminded how tiring it must be to faculty applicants who face the same sort of gauntlet. However, it is also really interesting to hear what lots of people are doing.

All the universities I visited had shiny new Computer Science buildings but complained about the same set of themes. They are all overrun with students, have difficulty getting resources (for teaching assistants, graders …) out of their administrations, have an (essentially) arbitrary number of open faculty slots to hire people, but have difficulty identifying suitable candidates. I used to think MIT had a large Computer Science program; however all of the North American universities I visited, except Cornell, had similar size (or larger) operations.  Everybody also wanted to talk about what “big data” might mean….

“Everybody [at the universities I visited] also wanted to talk about what ‘big data’ might mean….”

It was especially gratifying to visit the University of Michigan, where I was a grad student from 1965 to 1970. Although North Campus is almost unrecognizable with new buildings, much of the city of Ann Arbor looks just like it did 45 years ago. It was very nostalgic.

Visiting China was especially eye-opening. I landed in Shanghai and was driven to Wuxi (one of approximately 100 cities in China that are bigger than Chicago). During the 100- mile trip, the road was lined on both sides with groups of apartment complexes – most more than 30 floors high. All looked less than 20 years old. The amount of recent construction is truly staggering.

I attended an ACM event there, and was then taken to Hefei (another of the 100 cities bigger than Chicago) via high-speed train. The stations are brand new, the trains are brand new and the trip at 150 MPH was very comfortable. Their train system makes Amtrak look like it is in the wrong century. In Hefei, I gave my Turing Award talk to a crowd of about 1,500 people. Since there are many references to US venture capital and US geography in my talk, I wondered whether the talk would make any sense to the audience. They seemed to like it, and the requests for “selfies” were endless.

The next day I was taken on a sightseeing excursion to a historic village about an hour away. It is eye-opening that there are so few old buildings in China; it reminds me what rich heritage we have in Boston! The subsequent trip to Beijing was on a similar high-speed train; again, new stations, new cars, and a comfortable experience.

In Beijing, I gave a Microsoft- sponsored talk at Tsinghua University. The previous day, one of my ex-post-doc visitors had taken us sightseeing, and one of the stops was the Olympic Village. It is a shock to an American that the Chinese government can do urban renewal at will. Whatever was on the site previously was gone and the Olympic Village replaced it. In Beijing there are crowds everywhere, and the traffic congestion is awful. Everybody has an iPhone, even though they cost as much in China as here. In most places in China, the air pollution is awful; however, we were blessed with blue sky on several days in Beijing. Again, the request for “selfies” was endless.

In China, there was a Chinese banquet nearly every night. Inevitably, this would be on a 20-person round table with 20 or 30 courses. After a while, I yearned for pizza!

It is truly impressive what the country has managed to accomplish.  Right now, I would classify them as a “fast follower.” In other words, most technology comes from abroad, and is copies of successful western ideas. There is a Chinese Google, a Chinese Amazon, a Chinese e-Bay, etc. However, the question of the day is: “Can they become successful innovators?”

On the one hand, their society is very hierarchical; for example, at every Chinese banquet, there is a specified seating order.  Chinese citizens cannot move freely around the country, and women do not appear to always be first-class citizens. This is consistent with “thinking inside the box.” On the other hand, there is a huge population and a government that is focused on science and technology education. Even as a fast follower, the Chinese market is 2X the size of North America and Europe combined. Right now, it is carefully protected; for example, Google is suppressed in China. It will be interesting if they can learn to “think outside the box” off into the future. In my opinion, this will likely determine who will be the technology giant mid-century.

 

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