Steve Blackburn

Steve Blackburn is Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at ANU

Abstraction is the main tool that humans use for combating complexity. The idea is to hide unnecessary detail

I started playing with computers as a kid, studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate and then did my PhD in computer science. These two interests have been in balance throughout my career," he says. He became a Professor at ANU in 2012 having done his PhD at the University in 1998.

Steve says his research is about 'abstraction without guilt'. He explains, "Abstraction is the main tool that humans use for combating complexity. The idea is to hide unnecessary detail. You don't need to know how the whole tax system works to fill in a tax return.

"Abstraction is a tool that is used a lot in computer science and engineering, but it usually comes at a cost. That cost can be in terms of time - how fast a program can run, or in energy - how much energy is used by the computer in getting the job done.

"Energy use has become an extremely important consideration in computing, and my main area is studying how software affects energy consumption. I find that this is where computer science and engineering come together, as I need to look at both the software and the hardware.

"'Abstraction without guilt' means being able to produce software that is portable, secure and more reliable, without paying a penalty in terms of performance or energy consumption."

Steve is working on a number of projects in this area, most in collaboration with PhD students. The common theme of the projects is in trying to understand the link between computer languages and new computer architecture.

"Computer hardware is changing rapidly and radically, and seeing how languages interact with this is fascinating. This work has applications in any kind of computing from cell phones to supercomputers, quite literally. One of our projects is with Microsoft looking at how the software used in phones affects their energy usage. Another is with IBM improving the performance of a language called X10 that is designed for supercomputers."

As well as collaborating with PhD students, Steve also works in many projects with industry, including software projects with Google, Microsoft and IBM, and hardware projects with Intel.

Steve has also played an important role in changing how programming language research is actually done. "I set up and led a group of researchers that established new benchmarks for the field," says Steve. "This allowed the international programming language research community to improve and standardise the way they evaluate performance."

Steve says he has never particularly focused on his career.

"I've been too busy just following and researching what I was interested in. What I really want is to make an impact. My goal is that one day I will buy a cell phone and I will know that the chip in it is working as efficiently and effectively as possible because of my group's work - that's the sort of everyday impact I would like.

"My wife is also an academic and we have three kids. My family takes most of my time outside work. I love outdoor stuff and we go hiking. Canberra is one of the best places in the world if you are an academic and if you love the outdoors. I wouldn't be anywhere else."

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Updated:  1 June 2019/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing