Interview with Gérard Berry, who was awarded the 2014 CNRS Gold Medal
When did your passion for computer science begin?
Since I arrived at École Polytechnique in 1967. I discovered computers in my first year at l'X: a S.E.T.I. P.B. 250 with an old IBM calculator. Those two machines were simply used to do scientific calculations, each with its rudimentary language. Throughout my education, I tried to improve these languages to make them more intuitive and richer. At the time, there was everything to learn and invent because the computer was such a new and explosive issue. It still is, in fact: the arrival of mobile phones, for example, has again totally changed the way we write computer programs.
You have pursued this passion at the Mines where you went after École Polytechnique.
It was Pierre Laffitte, who was Deputy Director of the National School of Mines de Paris, who told me to do research in computer science. I thus worked with a team of researchers on an original language called TIF (Traitement et Information de Fichier - Processing and File Info), a kind of precursor to Excel, that unfortunately led nowhere. I have also worked extensively at INRIA on mathematical programming, before moving to Sophia Antipolis.
In the 80s, you developed the Esterel language: why is it considered a major scientific breakthrough rewarded today by the CNRS gold medal?
We developed the Esterel language in collaboration with researchers from INRIA and CNRS. Esterel is an original synchronous programming language particularly suitable for embedded computing*. With Esterel, the idea was to create a language allowing programs to be in constant interaction with their environment, while being subjected to real time constraints. The real scientific breakthrough was to to enable the development of programs that offer a guaranteed response time, a predetermined behavior as well as clearly defined resource needs. In 2001, thanks to the success of Esterel, Esterel Technologies was created. I was Scientific Director for Esterel Technologies from 2001 to 2009.
What is this language used for in our day-to-day life?
This language has found various industrial applications: it has been used for example to control space rockets or aircrafts such as the Dassault Rafale, to design electronic circuits or even musical composition! It is one of the foundations of Esterel Technologies SCADE 6, now used in many industrial projects where IT is critical and must be certified.
You are currently working on a project named HipHop. Can you explain your approach?
We live in a cyber-physical world. Today, more than 90% of the computers are in the objects themselves, connected to the networks. The web also provides more and more services, that is to say computer programs with which it is possible to communicate with remote data. The challenge is how to make these objects and services interact harmoniously by orchestrating their behavior. To achieve this, we are developing a general language called Hop, with an extra layer used for the orchestration called HipHop. HipHop actually derives from Esterel, but with more dynamics.
In 2007, you became Professor at the Collège de France. What did it change in your career?
This was a turning point in my professional life. I had worked for 9 years in the industry and I really wanted to teach. In 2008, after having been elected for the annual Chair "Technological Innovation Liliane Bettencourt," I was thus hosting my first course at the Collège de France, "Why and how the world is going digital," which was a great success. I especially wanted to give a sense of the power of computing. In 2010, I held the "Computing and Computational Sciences" Chair created by Inria and the Collège de France, with a course entitled "Thinking, model and control the computation." In 2012, I was appointed head of the first permanent Chair of the Collège de France in computer science. This year, I start with a course on "Computer revolution in science", followed by a series of courses "Prove programs: why, when, how." .
What does the CNRS Gold Medal, regarded as the highest French scientific distinction, represent for you?
It is an honor of course. I hope this award will allow me to make myself heard when I fight for greater recognition of IT. In France, we are often consumers of IT rather than creators. Why? Because computer science is not regarded as a field in itself. But computer science is not just about learning how to use a computer, it's much more than that. I am currently fighting to start teaching computer science in France as early as primary school. I hope that the CNRS Gold Medal will help me to achieve this challenge.
*Software that is within the equipment to control and monitor it