Linus Torvalds on the state of Linux today and how AI figures in its future

At Open Source Summit Japan, Linux and Git creator Linus Torvalds talked about Rust in Linux, Linux maintainer fatigue, and AI's future role in Linux and open-source development.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Linux Foundation

Linus Torvalds, the founder of Linux, has been keeping a low profile lately. But at the Linux Foundation's Open Source Summit Japan, Torvalds and his good friend Dirk Hohndel, the head of Verizon open source, talked about the current state of Linux.

First up, the two talked about the next Linux kernel release, Linux 6.7. Before flying into Tokyo, Torvalds had released the fourth release candidate for 6.7. This means that if all goes well, and Torvalds sees no reason to think that it won't, the next version of Linux will arrive right around Christmas. 

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As Torvalds explained, he didn't want to have the "merge window around Christmas, which destroys Christmas for me." Now, though, "We're just waiting to make sure that we have nothing that's a showstopper." To make sure that the maintainers and developers who are now preparing for the next version, 6.8, won't go into a "panic because they know that after Christmas, my merge window opens, we'll probably delay that by a week or two to make the timing work out better because nobody wants to work over Christmas."

Speaking of maintainers, Hohndel brought up the question of "maintainer fatigue and how draining and stressful this role is." As I reported recently, Linux kernel maintainers are increasingly feeling more strained by this essential, demanding role. 

Torvalds replied, "It's much easier to find developers; we have a lot of developers. Some people think that you have to be a superdeveloper who can do everything to be a maintainer, but that's not actually true." 

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"To be a maintainer," Torvalds continued, "You have to have a certain amount of good taste to judge other people's code. Some of that may be innate, but a lot of it just takes practice. You must be able to look at other people's code, and be able to tell, 'Is this a good approach or a bad approach?' It's usually just a matter of having done it for many years."

That said, Torvalds added, "We do have a lot of great maintainers, but the other part is that you have to be there all the time. Or you have to find other maintainers that you can work with so that you schedule around your vacations and things like that." 

Now for Torvalds, "being there all the time is not a problem because I love doing what I'm doing. I was on vacation a few months ago, and I have my laptop. And if I hadn't had my laptop with me, I would have been so bored. It is what I do. But I realized that's not the life for everybody, especially when you have to put years of your life into this."

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It's also something Torvalds has had to learn to be better at as well. "Code is easy to write. You have a right answer, and you have a wrong. People relationships are hard, and being able to work with other developers and maintainers, especially when you have maintainers that work on different things with different goals. They want to push their area in one direction, and another maintainer comes in from another area and wants to pull it in another direction. It can be very stressful."

In 2018, Torvalds decided to pull back from his angry young man stance. He took a break from the Linux kernel to work on his behavior toward other developers. After he got a handle on it, Torvalds returned to the kernel. He's been much more mild-tempered since then. As he mentioned in Tokyo, he won't be "giving some company the finger. I learned my lesson."

To sum it up, Torvalds said, "It's one of those things where a lot of people seem to think that open source is all about programming, but a lot of it is about communication, too. Maintainers are the ones who translate. I don't necessarily mean language. I mean, the context, the reason for the code. That makes for a tough job. But, if you want to be a maintainer, trust me, there's room at the top."

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A related issue is the graying of the Linux kernel community. Hohndel observed. "If I look five years into the future, a lot of [the top Linux kernel] people will start hitting the 60s, and the first ones will approach the 70s." 

That's true, Torvalds admitted, "a lot of us are going gray, but at the same time, part of the reason is we have maintainers who have been around for more than 30 years. They are still around and still active and still end up coming to me. We have a community where people do stick around." 

Hohndel commented that the aging of the kernel community is a "double-edged sword." Torvalds agreed, but he noted that "one of the things I liked about the Rust side of the kernel, was that there was one maintainer who was clearly much younger than most of the maintainers. We can clearly see that certain areas in the kernel bring in more young people." For example, on the driver side, you'll have a much easier time finding younger people, and that is traditionally how we've grown a lot of maintainers, including Greg [Korah-Hartman, the Linux stable kernel maintainer].

Hohndel and Torvalds also talked about the use of the Rust language in the Linux kernel. Torvalds said, "It's been growing, but we don't have any part of the kernel that really depends on Rust yet. To me, Rust was one of those things that made technical sense, but to me personally, even more important was that we need to not stagnate as a kernel and as developers."

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That said, Torvalds continued, "Rust has not really shown itself as the next great big thing. But I think during next year, we'll actually be starting to integrate drivers and some even major subsystems that are starting to use it actively. So it's one of those things that is going to take years before it's a big part of the kernel. But it's certainly shaping up to be one of those."

Looking ahead, Hohndel said, we must talk about "artificial intelligence large language models (LLM). I typically say artificial intelligence is autocorrect on steroids. Because all a large language model does is it predicts what's the most likely next word that you're going to use, and then it extrapolates from there, so not really very intelligent, but obviously, the impact that it has on our lives and the reality we live in is significant. Do you think we will see LLM written code that is submitted to you?"

Torvalds replied, "I'm convinced it's gonna happen. And it may well be happening already, maybe on a smaller scale where people use it more to help write code." But, unlike many people, Torvalds isn't too worried about AI. "It's clearly something where automation has always helped people write code. This is not anything new at all."

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Indeed, Torvalds hopes that AI might really help by being able "to find the obvious stupid bugs because a lot of the bugs I see are not subtle bugs. Many of them are just stupid bugs, and you don't need any kind of higher intelligence to find them. But having tools that warn more subtle cases where, for example, it may just say 'this pattern does not look like the regular pattern. Are you sure this is what you need?' And the answer may be 'No, that was not at all what I meant. You found an obvious bag. Thank you very much.' We actually need autocorrects on steroids. I see AI as a tool that can help us be better at what we do."

But, "What about hallucinations?," asked Hohndel. Torvalds, who will never stop being a little snarky, said, "I see the bugs that happen without AI every day. So that's why I'm not so worried. I think we're doing just fine at making mistakes on our own."

Moving on, Torvalds said, "I enjoy the fact that open source, the notion of openness, has gotten so much more widely accepted. I enjoyed it particularly because I remember what it was thirty years ago when I had started this project, and people would ask me, 'Why?' And people would say, 'But how do you make money? That question never comes up anymore. Openness has become the standard within the industry. And people take it for granted that when you have to have big projects whether they are programming or data, you end up having them so big that you need to share between companies."

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Hohndel observed that "Linux Foundation is focused on encouraging collaboration beyond the individual, beyond the company to collaborate on things as a society and without trying to be too hyperbolic here -- there is a huge role in having that neutral place where people can come together and do things."

Torvalds concluded, "That is literally why I'm working at the Linux Foundation because I refused to ever work at a Linux company. Because I did not want to be in a situation where one company or one commercial entity would be a special place. You need to have a neutral place, and that's why I gave my name to the Linux Foundation."

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