Editor’s note: In a world where everything is run by computers, Computer Science Prof. Ben Leong is inspiring young, bright minds to challenge the status quo. Here he shares with Hippo what he sees as the possibilities for computing, why computer scientists need to reach across academic aisles, and how true failure in life doesn’t happen when we fall down, but when we give up entirely.

Ben Ben LeongLeong is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the School of Computing, National University of Singapore (NUS).  He received his Ph.D., M.Eng., and S.B. degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research interests are in the areas of computer networking and distributed systems.

What drew you to computer science?

I realized from a young age that I really liked computers and I liked to write programs. However, I thought that just writing programs that run on one machine was not sufficiently challenging. Instead, I became interested in learning about and exploring how we can write programs that will run on many computers, that then work together to do cool stuff. This is why my students and I work on Networking and Distributed Systems. We study and investigate how we can make networks run faster and more reliably, and also develop new ways to use these networks to do interesting things.

We are currently involved in two key projects. In one project, we are developing new algorithms that will allow cellular (3G/4G) data networks to run faster. In the other project, we are developing a new aerial wireless mesh network, where we will use flying quadrotors equipped with radios to rapidly set up a wireless network over places where there is no wired infrastructure.

Mobile data is very important to modern life. We all want to upload our photos faster, and also have better experience surfing the web or checking email on our mobile devices. Our research on 3G/4G networks will improve performance. We will also be working on techniques that will allow us to build better, less buggy and more energy efficient mobile applications. We believe that our aerial wireless mesh network will have applications in disaster relief and civil defense operations. All in all, I think we believe that through our work, we will help make things better.

Why do you teach?

I think the best thing about being a professor is the level of autonomy in deciding what I want to work on. Literally, I get out of bed each day and ask myself, “So, what cool thing can I do today?” Much of our happiness is derived from the people that we get to work with every day. I am grateful that it is a joy to go to work every day.

Students ask questions all the time and most times, I am very fast and I always have answers for them. There was, however, one question that I got that “stunned” me for a while. One year, a student asked, “Prof, so what’s the meaning of life?” I forget the exact circumstances under which that question was posed, but I remember being momentarily stumped. Even today, I really don’t have an answer because I think each person needs to find his own meaning. What is meaningful to one person might not be meaningful to the next. But we all need to find meaning because if not, then we would be wandering aimlessly through life.

If there’s one thing that I have learnt in life though, it’s that it is really difficult to say where we will be or what we will do in the future. I am not entirely sure that I will always be a professor at NUS. I don’t really have plans for my life. Every day, I just ask myself “how can I create the most value today?”, and I just do my best. My goal is to minimize regret and sleep well at night. So far, my algorithm seems to be working quite well.

You’re such a popular professor there’s even a Ben Leong Fan Club Facebook page in your honor. Why do you think students enjoy your classes so much?

I think the main thing about my teaching is that I believe in what I am doing and I believe it makes a difference. The trouble with teaching, frankly, is that it is very hard to measure. We really cannot say for sure what we achieved, or not. However, I believe in inspiration. I believe that it is important for us to be inspired in our work—and to be inspired, we need to believe that what we are doing actually makes a difference. I might be delusional, but if so, I think it’s good delusion. It is not always easy for each of us to find our place in life. What I can share is that I believe I found my calling back in secondary school when we sang this song “If I can help somebody”. The lyrics somehow spoke to me:

If I can do my duty, as a good man ought,

If I can bring back beauty, to a world up wrought,

If I can spread love’s message, as the Master taught,

Then my living shall not be in vain.

And I had this epiphany. I realized at the moment that I wanted to live my life by helping people—but at the point in time, I didn’t really know how exactly I would do it. I guess in my current job as a professor, I help students. It is not just about learning stuff and getting good grades. I believe that, more important than that, my duty is to see how I can help students live good lives when they grow up.

You’re not just an adored professor, but also the founder of a successful business—how has working outside academia been of value to you and how has it impacted your teaching?

I don’t think successful business is an accurate description of our company at this point. We’re still in the early stages and we have enough revenue to be self-sustaining, but have we not yet found a truly efficient and scalable business model. Our current situation is however comfortable because we have room to iterate and try new things without undue financial pressures. We are really a tech company, pretending to be an employment agency, because for now, it pays the bills. I don’t actually do much for the company, which is run day-to-day by my ex-students.

I think it’s important to be engaged in work outside of academia, because the many accusations that professors are stuck in their ivory towers are often true. Research sounds good on paper, but there’s often a chasm between what we do in research and what happens in the real world. I believe that my work outside of academia is helpful to my teaching because it provides me with valuable perspectives that I am then able to share with my students. Also, having some amount of experience in the trenches probably provides me with some amount of credibility. Many lessons in life are not learnt in the formal education system but in the school of hard knocks.

What is your favorite academic work in your discipline and why? How would it be useful for those outside your discipline to read this work?

There are many, many pieces of interesting academic work, but the first thing that comes to mind would be the MapReduce framework Google published in 2004. The key idea of this system is to break computations into two basic operations, “map” and “reduce,” which are very fundamental operations in Computer Science. They are actually rather simple. The genius of this whole system is how Google figured out how to make this simple thing scale to a point where we can parallelize and distribute computations over hundreds and thousands of servers to process data really quickly. This algorithm powers many of the Google systems we use on a daily basis today.

Why is your discipline important in the world?

This question is somewhat of a flame bait, so I want to be careful here. I think all disciplines are important and not just mine. What I will say however is that advances in Computer Science have changed much of our lives over the past two decades and I foresee that this trend will continue.  Marc Andreessen published the article, “Why Software Is Eating The World,” in 2011, and I believe that much of what he said still rings true today. He explains much more articulately than I could ever manage why Computer Science will play a very dominant role in the future of this world.

What I would like to add, however, is that I have some grave concerns. While Computer Science is making things much, much more efficient and generating a lot of wealth for those who master it, it is also causing jobs to be destroyed by changing the fundamental structure of the modern economy. What I am wondering is: which discipline could help us solve these problems? As Computer Scientists, we are builders and engineers. We seek to make things better and faster and improve lives. Unfortunately, I think overall, we are destroying more jobs than we are creating and these jobs are often exclusive to those who are highly skilled. I do hope that some folks will work on this new social problem, because addressing it is not something my discipline is equipped to do.

If there was only one piece of advice you could give a university student, what would it be?

I think it’s important to come to terms with how small and insignificant we all are. I think people fear failure because they are worried about what others will think of them. The insight is that most people are typically too self-absorbed in their own lives and own problems to have the time and space to care about what really happens to others. This realization is very liberating because it makes failures so much less scary. The corollary is that it is actually okay to fail because when one succeeds just once, most people won’t remember the failures. I would encourage students to try new things, break new ground and to push themselves, and not be held back by the fear of failure. Many claim that there are no second chances. I believe that it is all in the head and that we never really fail, until we give up.


Interviewed by Tien-Yi Toh. Tien studied Psychology (Behavioral Neuroscience, BA and MSc) at the University of Otago in New Zealand and now manages Communications and Media at the NUS School of Computing.

*A version of this interview was earlier featured on the NUS SoC blog.

Image credit:U.C. Berkeley ETS Design and Engineering via flickr

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