Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie win Japan Prize
When Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie began creating the Unix operating system
in 1969, they did not envision that their work would become a backbone of the
computer revolution that has transformed the world. The two Bell Labs computer
scientists – named today as winners of the 2011 Japan Prize for information
and communications – just wanted to build a better operating system. "I
did it as a backlash against the bad operating systems of the day," said
Thompson, 67. "We were just trying to get something better to get our own
In 1999 Thompson and Ritchie received
the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton
Thompson, now living in San Jose and doing work as a "distinguished engineer"
for Mountain View's Google Inc., and Ritchie, 69, now a computer consultant,
were named by the Japan Prize Foundation to commemorate their work four decades
ago at the old Bell Laboratories, now owned by Alcatel-Lucent in New Jersey.
Unix, developed in conjunction with the programming language C, "has significantly
advanced computer software, hardware and networks over the past four decades
and facilitated the realization of the Internet," the foundation said in
a news release.
The pair will split a $600,000 prize awarded by the foundation, which began
in 1982 to honor those whose work "aims to promote the advancement of science
and technology for the peace and prosperity of mankind." Ten Japan Prize
winners have also won Nobel Prizes.
The Japan Prize is awarded to people from all parts of the world whose "original
and outstanding achievements in science and technology are recognized as having
advanced the frontiers of knowledge and served the cause of peace and prosperity
for mankind." The Prize is in principle given for work done in any field
of science and technology, but each year two particular fields are designated
based on trends within these areas and other considerations. Laureates receive
a "Japan Prize" certificate of merit, a prize medal, and a cash award
of 50 million yen for each field. Only living individuals may be nominated for
To give you an impression here is last year's Japan Prize ceremony –
which is attended by the Japanese Emperor,
his wife and the entire Japanese government. The 2011 Prize to Thompson and
Ritchie will be awarded in April.
Ken Thompson is famous for Unix and C, but is also considered a computer chess
pioneer. In 1979 Ken and a colleague at the Bell Laboratories decided to build
a special purpose machine to play chess, using many hundreds of chips, worth
about 20,000 dollars.
"Belle" was able to search at about 180,000 positions per second (the super-computers
at the time were doing 5,000 positions) and go down eight to nine ply in tournament
games, which enabled it to play in the master category. It won the world computer
chess championship and all other computer tournaments from 1980 to 1983, until
it was superseded by giant Cray X-MPs costing a thousand times more.
Chess computers and endgames: Ken Thompson with Garry Kasparov
Ken is also one of the pioneers of endgame databases. In the 80s he began to
generate and store all legal endgame positions with four and five pieces on
the board. A typical five-piece ending, like king and two bishops vs king and
knight, contains 121 million positions. With a pawn, which is asymmetric in
its movements, the number rises to 335 million. Thompson wrote programs that
generated all legal positions and worked out every forcing line that is possible
in each endgame. He also compressed the resulting data in a way that allowed
one to store about 20 endgames on a standard CD-ROM.
Ken at the London Chess Classic
One of the guests of honour at the 2011
London Chess Classic was Ken Thompson, who remains a keen chess enthusiast
and is well known to many of the world's top grandmasters. There are many stories
to be told about his visit to London in December – at least one involves
chess and astronomy – but we will leave that for later. Here are some
A conjunction of pure brain power: world class economist and chess grandmaster
GM and author John Nunn, computer and computer chess pioneer Ken Thompson
A post-game coffee shop encounter: Prof Vinayak Dravid of Northwestern University,
Vishy Anand, World Chess Champion and Ken Thompson, a good friend of Anand
Operating remote telescopes with Anand, Luke McShane (right) and astronomer
Christian Sasse, who runs the Global Rent-a-Scope (GRAS) site
A private dinner given by the Chess Classic sponsor Peter Davies for Anand,
Davies, Natasha Rogoff,
Ken, tournament organiser Malcolm Pein. The empty chairs belong to Frederic
Friedel and Ken Rogoff...
Ken, a four-pen geek, in conversation with Natasha
Lance Rogoff, an independent film maker who graduated from the University
of California at Berkeley and received a master's degree in international affairs
from Columbia University. Most impressively Natasha is responsible for the production
of 182 original Sesame Street episodes in Russian.
Ken with French journalist Marie Laure Germon, who is married to Vladimir Kramnik
A great scientist and a great friend: congratulations Ken
Photos from London by Frederic Friedel