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Eric Brewer: Change Agent

2009 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award winner Eric Brewer

Eric Brewer, winner of the 2009 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in the Computing Sciences.

Credit: Peter Buranzon

Eric Brewer has received plenty of accolades during his career, but his latest award is the first one that has moved him to tears.

Brewer, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, is the recipient of the 2009 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in the Computing Sciences for his contributions to the design and development of highly scalable Internet services. Brewer says his emotion about being named the winner stems partially from the fact that the ACM-Infosys Foundation Award considers accomplishments across the entire field of computer science. He says, with a bit of understatement, "That's a pretty big group."

It might be impossible to overstate Brewer's influence upon making computer science accessible to that "pretty big group." His research on cluster computing in the early 1990s led to the concept of scalable servers capable of simultaneously serving millions of users. His pioneering work as CEO of Inktomi in the mid- to late 1990s greatly advanced Internet search and improved network performance.

Brewer's latest project, called TIER (Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions), which focuses on designing and deploying low-cost wireless infrastructure in the developing world, may have the same disruptive impact on traditional views of economic development policy that his earlier work had on computing architecture.

"The traditional model of economic development has been very top-down—'Take $100 million to build a dam,'" Brewer notes. "That's had mixed success and is also very expensive. But things that have worked bottom-up, in particular cell phones, didn't have any top-down funding at all."

Brewer is literally putting his $150,000 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award where his mouth is by investing it in TIER, which has projects under way in Cambodia, Ghana, Philippines, and elsewhere. And, just as his work on clusters in the early 1990s served as a bridge between contemporary research that explored clusters as supercomputers and the nascent ubiquitous demand for networked data, he hopes the TIER project will help blend the discipline of computer science with the economic and social benefits, such as improved public health, presented by low-cost wireless networks.

"There aren't many ways to affect a billion people. I like the idea that computer science can do it."

"Is computer science open minded enough to allow this kind of work to count?" he asks. "That's not a given, and a lot of my talks in the last five years have been evangelizing why this topic should be inside the fold."

Brewer, who made and lost a billion dollars during the dot-com bubble and burst, says the experience raised his aspirations about how he could influence the world, and that innovative ideas, particularly those nurtured in the risk-tolerant environment of tenured scientists, don't have to be backed by a large bankroll.

"When I had a billion dollars," Brewer says, "I was thinking about what to do with it, and surely would love to have it back, but when I lost it, I did realize that money wasn't the only way to try to affect all the people I wanted to affect. I think it's harder to do without the money, but it's certainly more replicable—it's something that everyone can do."

In particular, Brewer says, the vast possibilities offered by inexpensive cloud computing and the bootstrap-to-titan ethos of modern computer science means almost limitless opportunities for today's students and scientists.

"There aren't many ways to affect a billion people," he says. "I like the idea that computer science can do it."

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Gregory Goth is an Oakville, CT-based writer who specializes in science and technology.

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UF1Eric Brewer, winner of the 2009 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in the Computing Sciences.

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