BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards

Information and Communication Technologies 2009

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Thomas Kailath

Galardonado Tecnologías de la Información y Comunicación 2009

The 2009 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Information and Communication Technologies category goes to engineer and mathematician Thomas Kailath (Pune, India, 1935) for creating knowledge with transformative impact on the information and communication technologies that permeate everyday life. These pioneering developments laid the mathematical foundations enabling solutions to some of the challenging problems in this area and have also served to break through the barrier of chip miniaturization.

Thomas Kailath, Hitachi America Professor Emeritus of Engineering at Stanford University, is author of a mathematical development enabling the production of increasingly small size chips. Methods of his invention are able to pattern integrated circuits with components finer even than the lightwaves used in their production, rather like drawing a line that is finer than the point of the pencil. This discovery, moreover, emerged at a time when the limits of chip miniaturization seemed close and insurmountable.

Kailath was able to conquer that barrier to achieve the results forecast by ‘Moore’s law’, whereby the number of transistors that can be placed in an integrated circuit doubles every year and a bit. “At that time it was thought that 100 nanometers was the smallest thing you could make in a chip with optics (a nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter). Right now, the limit stands at 32 nanometers, and we were the first to break through that barrier”, he explains.

Thomas Kailath has revolutionized a multitude of supposedly disparate areas, from wireless communications and mobile telephony to the aforementioned miniaturization of integrated circuits.

In the field of wireless communications, his work led to the development of a new antenna system used in the now ubiquitous Wi-Fi technology, and was also instrumental in bringing to market the GSM cell phone standard.

In this terrain, Kailath predicts that “Cell phones will get better and better, with more computing power. They will eventually replace computers”. He declares himself “astounded” by the predominance of the mobile phone. “Nowadays people think that if you don’t answer the phone there’s something wrong. I don’t always carry mine with me because like any technology it has its drawbacks, but the ability to be globally connected at any time is a good thing. Less good is that today we are drowning in information, but that doesn’t mean we are absorbing more”.

Besides his major contributions to the applied sciences, many of the Frontiers laureate’s achievements are purely mathematical. For Kailath is that rare combination: a scientist with the ability to solve profound mathematical problems and translate them into practical applications, generating new technologies and transferring them to industry.

He has been nominated by the president of the IEE Signal Processing Society, José M. F. Moura, at the Carnegie Mellon University, with the support of the Spanish Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Advanced Studies of the Technical University of Munich; the School of Engineering of the Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Princeton School of Engineering and Applied Science; the Israel Institute of Technology; and the Imperial College London.

A tribute to the brilliance of his students

In the course of his teaching career, the awardee has directed around eighty PhD theses, a good deal more than the average U.S. university professor, and has worked alongside postdoctoral researchers all over the world. Many of these students now occupy leading positions in industry or have set up their own businesses.

“I was able to see the opportunities and enter new fields because I learned to use my students as intelligence amplifiers”, says Kailath. “So I regard this prize as a tribute also to them, to their brilliance and dedication”.

Kailath has authored some 400 publications in specialist journals, as well as various books that set new standards in their subject area.

Born in Pune (India), in 1935, he was far from being a child prodigy in mathematics and in fact passed his exams at school by memorizing the solutions to all the problems taught in class. It was not until geometry entered the curriculum that the young Kailath warmed to his subject. Years later, studying at Pune University, Kailath happened on his future when reading an article by Claude Shannon titled “Information Theory” in the magazine Popular Science. That was back in 1950, when TV signal transmission was still an emerging technology. In 1956, Kailath was awarded a grant to continue his doctorate studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Cambridge (United States), where he became the center’s first ever Indian-born student. In 1976, he was naturalized a U.S. citizen.

International jury

Chairing the jury was Andrea Goldsmith, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University and Junior Past President of the Information Theory Society of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the most influential professional association in the world of advanced technology). Other members were Ronald Ho, Distinguished Engineer on the VLSI Research Group of Sun Microsystems; Oussama Khatib, professor and leading specialist in robotics working at the Artificial intelligence Laboratory of Stanford University; Nico De Rooij, Director of the Institute of Microengineering at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland); and Spaniard Ramón López de Mántaras, Director of the Artificial Intelligence Research Unit (IIIA-CSIC).

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