Linus Torvalds interview: 'All my daughter wanted for Christmas was a polymerase chain reaction machine'

By Graeme Burton
04 Jan 2013 View Comments
linus-torvalds

Q. What technology do you consider has brought about the biggest changes to life as we live it today?

Further reading

You can't make a big difference in technology without actually changing people's lives to some degree.

I could try to talk about some big serious issue (such as 'curing cancer'), but for me it's really pretty simple: the biggest thing is how we're finally getting to the point where "data is just data", and we don't have all these insane special communications channels for different forms of data. We have one main channel, and all the different forms of data just hook up to that single channel.

I detest phones and fax machines. I think traditional TV is just horrid. In the end it's all just data and I really love how we are finally trying to treat it that way. Yes, I carry a mobile phone, but I really used to detest those things. I hated carrying around this device that was literally designed to interrupt me at any time and any point in my life.

I felt bad about hating mobile phones. I'm from Finland, after all – the land of Nokia – where people feel naked without their mobile. But, to me, they were the tool of the devil.

My current mobile? I love it, and I don't even think of it as a phone any more. It's really not the phone part that makes me carry it around, and its main purpose in life is no longer to be able to interrupt me wherever I am. Now it's a way to access data in its various forms, and it's so obviously about that. I don't even know how many minutes my plan has, because that's not how those things get used. The only thing that matters is the data plan.

I don't watch much TV, but that's the same way: when I travel, and end up in front of a TV that actually is designed to watch live TV at, it just annoys me. We were travelling when the kids were small, and their reaction to a TV in the hotel room was to ask us how to rewind the TV stream. They'd never seen a TV that just showed the TV signal before, they'd only ever seen it in a DVR form at home.

This may sound like a really petty complaint, and I think it is, but the prime example of it is actually this series of emails I'm sending you: I really don't much like voice communications, and I'm so happy that we're moving towards a world where pretty much everybody has email, and you can reach them that way instead. And there is only one connection you really need to care about – the internet. It's all the same.

And that electronic communication is what made Linux possible in the first place, of course.

Q. Where are the new frontiers in technology, what trends are exciting you now, again this can be in your field and any others that have struck you as being of particular interest?

I'll just mention one anecdotal example. My oldest daughter, Patricia, is 15. For the past few years she's shown a fair amount of interest in genetics, which I've obviously tried to encourage. So she's been to summer camps, read books about it, and just generally been very interested in it.

So she mentions that maybe she'd like to get a PCR machine for Christmas because she's used them at the summer camps (PCR stands for 'polymerase chain reaction'. It's a way to create lots of copies of a specific DNA sequence, so that you can amplify a particular sequence and thus look for specific DNA signatures).

I thought she was kidding (I still think she was not entirely serious), but it turns out that you can actually start to do some of these kinds of biochemistry labs at home. No, it's not sequencing DNA yet, but these kinds of technologies are clearly starting to come together.

Q. Finland is a country with a global reputation for science, technology and innovation. Why do you think it has become so prominent in these areas?

I can only really speak from my personal experience, but judging by that, I'd say that one of the major reasons is cultural.

I think Finns really do appreciate education and innovation, and when it is also coupled with a very egalitarian society, you then end up with a very high level of general education, not just centres of excellence. I think that explains why a fairly small country can produce much higher levels of science and technology than you'd expect purely on size alone.

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