Knights of Bits

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, March 24, 2005

The most significant event in my technological life was meeting Linus Torvalds. Linus had come to Stanford to talk about how he invented LINUX, the notorious open-source (and free) computer operating system Microsoft has spent so much time and money trying to destroy. I found out about his seminar late, unfortunately, and so had to stand at that back of the room, which was packed with students and fans. But after the talk I slowly insinuated my way to the podium, where Linus, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, was chatting. I introduced myself and then popped the question: would he be willing to exchange autographs with someone who had just won the Nobel Prize in physics? Linus grinned broadly and said he'd be glad to, whereupon the crowd burst into applause. I was very relieved, for both of us understood that I was getting more out of the deal than he was.

The legends of computer technology include not only shrewd businessmen like Bill Gates and Steve Case but also genuine scholars like Linus, who have made clarity for everyone else in exchange for fame, and little else. Like many other such people, Linus did his innovative work when he was a student. (He is from Helsinki.) He was frustrated with Microsoft's unwillingness to completely explain the workings of its software, but unlike everyone else did not know how impossibly difficult it was to write an operating system---the master program that manages all the others in your computer---from scratch. He thus set out make a functional copy of a simple, powerful one called UNIX, beloved of computer experts like me because it enables you to understand and control everything. It took him several months, during which one supposes he did less homework than he should have, but he finally succeeded. That in itself would have been a major accomplishment, but Linus went further and published the written instructions that later get turned into computer language---the source code---in the open literature. That meant he was disseminating real knowledge, and thus understanding for everyone, rather than products. His program, which eventually became known as LINUX, instantly spread around the world and rocketed Linus to technological superstar status. Among people who really understand computers his work is usually valued more highly than the Nobel Prize.

LINUX is a superb invention. It is exceedingly stable (i.e. it doesn't stop working for unknown reasons), easy to defend against viruses and hacking, simple, and malleable in just the ways you like. It acquired these properties over time as a side effect of being open, for it has been possible for troublemakers to study the published source for vulnerabilities and plan attacks. As more vulnerabilities were revealed (sometimes with very painful consequences) and corrected, LINUX evolved from its original experimental status to the stable one we know today. It has now become the first choice for most of us when we set up an Internet server. Thus, in this case at least, creating open knowledge spun off great economic value.

Unfortunately, that's often not good enough. Like other kinds of engineers, programmers have to make money, and they do this by selling their work in order to recoup the time investment. This usually requires keeping the important knowledge secret, since no one will buy knowledge he can get for free. Linus's work would have been unthinkable on a company payroll because it could not have led to profits. It would have been equally unthinkable on a government research contract.

But my Nobel Prize work would also have been unthinkable. I got away with it only because I was isolated in a secluded trailer at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory waiting for my security clearance to be approved in Washington. Linus and I, you see, are brothers.

Koreans often ask me how they can get more Nobel Prizes, and I always answer that I don't really know, which is the truth. However I suspect that inadequate openness and freedom are part of the answer. We could equally well ask why so few Koreans are errant knights of bits like Linus Torvalds. I personally think software is more important than physics right now, and thus that this deficiency matters more. It's true that open-source authors tend to emigrate to Silicon Valley after their great work, but that's fine because they've become immortal electronic spirits on the Internet anyway.

Linus's web site says he now lives in San Jose and enjoys driving around in his Mercedes and playing with his baby daughter.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]