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The Young Genius Behind BitTorrent

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The Young Genius Behind BitTorrent

Technology

The Young Genius Behind BitTorrent

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Now, a profile of the man who invented BitTorrent, 32-year-old Bram Cohen. I wanted to meet Cohen because I'd heard from net-savvy types that he's one of the most interesting characters in modern Internet culture - brilliant and different from other people. I was not disappointed.

Mr. BRAM COHEN (Inventor, BitTorrent): I learned how to program at a very young age.

SEABROOK: I'm standing with Cohen in his office at BitTorrent's headquarters in San Francisco.

Mr. COHEN: I remember talking to a friend of mine in, I believe, the first grade. And I had a Timex Sinclair at that time and he had a Commodore 64. So I was basically trying to explain the Church-Turing thesis to my first grade classmate, and he had no idea what I was talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: You're kidding. He didn't get it?

If you have no idea what Cohen is talking about, don't worry, most people don't. Cohen is a genius computer programmer. He wrote his first lines of code at age five. And if there's something odd about his laugh, that's likely a symptom of a form of high-functioning autism Cohen has called Asperger's Syndrome.

People who have Asperger's have problems understanding and participating in normal social interactions. They often can't identify or empathize with other people's emotions.

So while Cohen is a computer savant, he has no natural understanding of other seemingly simple things like body language and eye contact.

Mr. COHEN: Well, any sort of social interaction I've got to kind of think about and think what it means and what's going through people's head. And I'm good enough at it now that I can mostly function reasonably.

SEABROOK: Friends told him it felt weird to talk to him so Cohen taught himself to look people in the eye during conversations. He's had to learn that it's not always socially appropriate to tell the truth. For example, when the question is: do I look fat.

Standing in his office it's fairly normal to have a conversation with him. Cohen has some social skills but they're pretty mechanical rather than natural feeling. Looking around the room betrays a bit more of his differences from other people. The walls are completely blank. The desk is messy, not with piles of paper but with no order at all. A complete jumble of boxes, little toys, flyers and photos.

And strewn about the office there are dozens of different kinds of three-dimensional puzzles, like Rubik's Cubes but much more complicated.

(Soundbite of clicking)

SEABROOK: These are another obsession of Cohen's.

Mr. COHEN: People frequently look at Rubik's Cubes and count the stickers. And a Rubik's Cube is not, what is it 54 stickers. A Rubik's Cube is eight corners and 12 edges and six face centers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: It sounds to me like all of these things...

Mr. COHEN: Yeah.

SEABROOK: ...making BitTorrent, doing the puzzles and...

Mr. COHEN: Yeah.

SEABROOK: ...the coding at five or whatever, is like this, what you were talking about - this ability to see things in your head that completely don't exist. It's like this natural abstraction.

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. A lot of these things seem to most people to be completely abstract and soulless and uninteresting. And I find them really fascinating.

SEABROOK: So here's the upside to Cohen's Asperger's. He can be engrossed in computer code for hours and days and never miss the kind of social interaction that most of us need to stay interested. This is surely an ingredient of Bram Cohen's genius, an ability that allowed him at age 26, alone, in a few short weeks, to write the code of BitTorrent, which today is changing how the Internet works.

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