Featured in Five is a monthly section where we pose five questions to a Computing Reviews featured reviewer. Here are the responses from our March featured reviewer, Simon Thompson (University of Kent, UK).
Q: What is the most important thing that's happened in computing in the past 10 years?
A: Technically, it's fascinating to see that the ideas underlying functional programming - immutability, lambdas, pattern matching - have gone mainstream, after 20 or so years of seeming to many to be a mathematical curiosity. Partly it's due to the end of the monolithic version of Moore's Law, with processors no longer speeding up, but instead "spreading out" into multicore. This means that threads need to interwork, and immutability is a key element here. It's also one of the paradoxes of computing that many ideas take an awfully long time to get accepted, and in particular programming languages have a longevity and inertia that certainly wasn't appreciated when they were designed years ago.
In the wider sense, the most important thing has to be "mobile.” So many things change when they are context aware, and smartphones and tablets have shown that for the physical context. Combining context awareness with machine intelligence gives us the recognition and translation systems that we now take for granted, too.
Q: By the end of your career, where do you think computer science will have taken us? What are you working on that might contribute to that?
A: I'm closer to the end of my career than many, so I'd better say something that might be close. I work in building refactoring tools for programmers, and one of the things that makes this difficult in practice is that text files are still the primary representation for programmed systems. People have more than once predicted the end of text, but it's still stubbornly there; I'm sure that someone is going to make the decisive discovery soon, and help us to move to more flexible and powerful representations that we can manipulate, refactor, and extend more easily and indeed more safely, if we can combine them with automated verification technology.
Q: Who is your favorite historical figure? Why?
A: May I name a time instead? Intellectual disciplines grow so rapidly - it would not be an overstatement to say "exponentially,” I think - that we become experts in narrower and narrower fields. Instead, just think what it might have been like to be a mathematician or scientist in the 19th century, when you could know - pretty much - the whole of your subject, and see how all the disparate bits fit together.
Q: If you weren't working in the computer science field, what would you be doing instead?
A: I enjoy baking bread: would I be able to make a living doing that? I'm not sure, but it would be fun to try it out. If that didn't work, then a walking tour guide, either in the city where I live, Canterbury, or on long-distance treks.
Q: What is your favorite type of music?
A: I'm pretty omnivorous about music - pop, rock, jazz, opera, chamber music, electronica, country - all bring different pleasures. What has changed my listening habits is Spotify. I can now go back to that obscure record from the early 1970s and listen again: having a “world juke box” out there is just extraordinary. While I write this, I'm listening to Herbie Hancock's Sextant from 1973 -- I just discovered it a few months ago. And next on the playlist, there's something more up to date; but harking back to John Coltrane's later work, there's Kamasi Washington's The Epic.