Heterogeneous parallel programming - an explanation for laypeople
But Moore's Law continues in operation: the number of transistors that can be placed on a given area of silicon has continued to double every eighteen months, as it has done for decades now. So how can chip makers make use of the extra capacity? The answer is multicore: placing several "cores" (whole, independent processing units) onto the same piece of silicon. Your chip can still do twice as much work as the one from eighteen months ago, but only if you split that work up into independent tasks.
This presents the software industry with a problem. We've been conditioned over the last fifty years to think that the same program will run faster if you put it on newer hardware. That's not true any more. Computer programs are basically recipes for use by particularly literal-minded and stupid cooks; imagine explaining how to cook a complex meal over the phone to someone who has to be told everything. If you're lucky, they'll have the wit to say "Er, the pan's on fire: that's bad, right?". Now let's make the task harder: you're on the phone to a room full of such clueless cooks, and your job is to get them to cooperate in the production of a complex dinner due to start in under an hour, without getting in each other's way. Sounds like a farce in the making? That's basically why multicore programming is hard.
But wait, it gets worse! The most interesting settings for computation these days are mobile devices and data centres, and these are both power-sensitive environments; mobile devices because of limited battery capacity, and data centres because more power consumption costs serious money on its own and increases your need for cooling systems which also cost serious money. If you think your electricity bill's bad, you should see Google's. Hence, one of the major themes in computer science research these days is "you know all that stuff you spent forty years speeding up? Could you please do that again, only now optimise for energy usage instead?". On the hardware side, one of the prominent ideas is heterogeneous multicore: make lots of different cores, each specialised for certain tasks (a common example is the Graphics Processing Units optimised for the highly-parallel calculations involved in 3D rendering), stick them all on the same die, farm the work out to whichever core is best suited to it, and power down the ones you're not using. To a hardware person, this sounds like a brilliant idea. To a software person, this sounds like a nightmare: now imagine that our Hell's Kitchen is full of different people with different skills, possibly speaking different languages, and you have to assign each task to the person best suited to carrying it out.
The upshot is that heterogeneous multicore programming, while currently a niche field occupied mainly by games programmers and scientists running large-scale simulations, is likely to get a lot more prominent over the coming decades. And hence another of the big themes in computer science research is "how can we make multicore programming, and particularly heterogeneous multicore programming, easier?" There are two aspects to this problem: what's the best way of writing new code, and what's the best way of porting old code (which may embody complex and poorly-documented requirements) to take advantage of multicore systems? Some of the approaches being considered are pretty Year Zero - the functional programming movement, for instance, wants us to write new code in a tightly-constrained way that is more amenable to automated mathematical analysis. Others are more conservative: for instance, my colleague Dan Powell is working on a system that observes how existing programs execute at runtime, identifies sections of code that don't interfere with each other, and speculatively executes them in parallel, rolling back to a known-good point if it turns out that they do interfere.
This brings us to the forthcoming Coursera online course in Heterogeneous Parallel Programming, which teaches you how to use the existing industry-standard tools for programming heterogeneous multicore systems. As I mentioned earlier, these are currently niche tools, requiring a lot of low-level knowledge about how the system works. But if I want to contribute to projects relating to this problem (and my research group has a lot of such projects) it's knowledge that I'll need. Plus, it sounds kinda fun.
Anyone else interested?