Monthly Archives: July 2020

Increasing the Impact of PL Research

[This article is cross-posted on PL Perspectives, the SIGPLAN blog.]

Programming languages research has been going on since (at least) the first general-purpose language compilers were developed in the 1950s and it still has a lot to offer to today’s pressing problems. Indeed, we might right now be in another golden age of programming language design, what with Rust poised to become a major systems programming language; with TypeScript reimagining yet co-existing with JavaScript; with WebAssembly trending towards a high-performant yet safe mobile code platform; and even classic languages like C++ undergoing many major design revisions. Even libraries like TensorFlow and PyTorch and languages like Julia are turning machine learning specialists into language designers and compiler writers.

Even in this vibrant environment, my sense is that the size of the PL research community, and the impact of its research, is lower than it should be. My social network tells me that grad school applications signaling PL interest are declining, and while many researchers have won Turing awards for PL ideas these are becoming fewer and further between. Compare this state of affairs to that in the machine learning and security communities, which are growing rapidly in size and stature. Is there anything the PL community can do to increase the impact of its great work?

My recommendation is a concentrated effort to diversify PL research enthusiasts, and through them broaden the impact of PL-minded work. 

We in PL can expand our tent. Education and outreach can help others to see that PL—its problems, methods, and ethos—is different and more exciting than they realized. We can lower the barrier to entry by engaging in a little housecleaning around expectations of core knowledge. We can also venture outside our tent, taking our knowledge and ideas to join other communities and address their problems. All of these steps will follow naturally from a focus on collaborative efforts attacking substantial problems, such as deployable AI or a quantum programming stack, the solution to which involves PL techniques, but many others besides. Continue reading


Filed under Process, Research