Andy Hopper is Professor of Computer Technology at Cambridge University and one of the founders of Acorn computers.
It’s fair to say computers have had a big influence on your life. Can you tell us a bit about it?
I joined the Computer Technology course at Swansea University in 1971. The course combined computer science with electronics, accountancy and economics – it shaped everything for me.
IT is the biggest industry in the world - we have the biggest and most valuable companies. In 1971 I joined a course that had all this at its core. It very much informed my subsequent career because it gave me the technical ammunition on one side and helped make familiar the business side.
I am Professor of Computer Technology at Cambridge University in the Department of Computer Science and Technology (I changed the name when I was the Head of the Department). It is the same as the name of the course I took in Swansea. Swansea was quite pioneering, and that was down to two people in particular. A Professor of Electrical Engineering called William Gosling who had the idea to start the course, and David Aspinall who was recruited to run the course at Swansea. William Gosling was a man who had a lot of connections with industry and he was also a Technical Director of a company called Plessey who were involved in electronics, defence and telecommunications. Through his work, he was very familiar with the industrial side of things and of course for me personally that was very inspiring because that is what I have done with my career ever since. I have had a simultaneous career in academia and industry. I never left the University; I’ve always just done the two things at the same time.
How did you end up at Cambridge?
Professor Aspinall knew some people in Cambridge and suggested I go and see them. So in July 1974, I walked in and they give me an interview. They said, “What would you like to do?” and I said, “I’m not sure, I like building things and I like electronics.” They asked me what my project was, and I said it was to do with microprocessors. The next day they called me and made me an offer.
I subsequently discovered, they had someone cancel on them at the last minute and I was the next person available so they could fulfil the grant and get the research money. The deadline for the research money was the end of July, it was an SRC grant, the forerunner to the EPSRC, so I ended up driving back and forth between Swansea and Cambridge to hand deliver all the paperwork to get on the grant and that’s how I ended up doing a PhD at Cambridge after Swansea.
As a serial entrepreneur where have the ideas for your businesses come from? Have they always been there, or have they emerged through your academic work?
You’ve got to be in the right environment and my PhD at Cambridge was very practical. I was part of a bigger project related to a high-speed network. Ethernet was just emerging, and we had a competitive project called Cambridge Ring. Several companies started commercialising it, and I helped with the process. The department (and I'm proud to say, that until two years ago, I was head of that department for 14 years) strongly supports collaboration with industry.
In those days, and to some extent we’ve continued it, the industrial side was encouraged – you were delivering in a broader sense than the number of papers you had published.
I was Research Director at Acorn at the time I helped start the technology that led to the development of the company ARM, but I was at the University at the same time. ARM is Acorn RISC Machines and RISC was written instructions for the computer, developed in the University of California, Berkeley. It appeared on my radar and I thought it interesting. At that time, I also had some previous PhD students, some based in the US, and I told them to go over to Berkeley and take a look. They came back and said it’s interesting, you can build it, it’s a microprocessor. At Acorn, we were big enough to take it forward. Acorn had done some previous chips. I spoke to my partner, the CEO, Hermann Hauser about the idea and he said “Let's go for it. We’ve employed some great PhDs out of the University, they can work on it.” Part of the reason the ARM chip design is what it was is that we didn’t have a whole lot of money, so it needed to be power saving. It wasn’t because we were all brilliant geniuses, it is the context that made us do it. You need those components, money, industry and academia. My companies have all been along those lines, at least in terms of the technology. There have now been 13 companies altogether, but I didn’t set out to be a serial entrepreneur, it’s just the way it happened.
You were at the forefront of computing in the UK. Acorn was described as the British Apple. What was it like to be in that place at that time?
Well at the time it still felt very competitive. There was a little company called Apple, and when starting the microprocessor project in a company called Acorn and the ARM project, we were aware that Intel (who made those microprocessors I used in Swansea in 1971/72) was a giant. That was who we had to compete with.
Secondly, the pathway: faster, cheaper, better, was clear and relatively uncrowded, so while it was competitive, it was also about judgement. Zoom, Skype, etc was around 30 years ago, it wasn’t a giant leap of imagination for professional engineers. But, the judgement, of how far we should pitch technology is a subtle judgement that many people cannot easily do - it’s that judgement of how far to go with the next thing. So, whether it was a faster network, a better chip for a network or a microprocessor or computer or multi-media streaming, it’s about judgement. Looking back, we deliberately tried to think as big as possible. The fact that everyone on the planet is using Zoom or Skype or whatever, in a way triggered, albeit for a bad reason, by coronavirus was completely beyond the wildest dreams a few months ago, but it has happened, and the world has changed forever. So to answer the question, it felt tremendous, sometimes financially nerve-wracking but the reality has surpassed what we could ever have imagined.
You were awarded the CBE in 2007. How does it feel to have your work recognised in such ways?
It’s all very nice but there are so many people who are equally as deserving if not more deserving that don’t get them. So, you have to slap yourself a little bit. But still, in this culture, it is nice to get them.
Sitting where you are, at the forefront of technology, what in your view, is the next big thing we are going to see?
I think the whole framework of computing and sustainability is really exciting. Imagine If we observe data in cyberspace and feed that back in to affect the world in a better sustainability sense. In other words, computing could become the pacemaker of the planet. We have the global positioning system, which is a great, free, worldwide service. Imagine a global temperature system that can give you the temperature of each square metre of the planet in real-time for everybody, free of charge. So I think supporting the sustainability of the planet through computing is a marvellous thing that I would like to see happen.