Linux creator Linus Torvalds has been honored with Finland’s prestigious Grand Millennium Technology Prize — often called the “Nobel of hi-tech” — for his work on open source software. But for the first time, the €1.2 million ($1.5 million) award will be split between two laureates, after the judging panel was unable to decide between them.
In April Torvalds, who was born in Finland, was revealed as one of two finalists for the prize, alongside Japanese stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka. After long deliberations failed to reach a conclusion, however, the judges decided to buck convention and divide the prize between them.
At a ceremony in Helsinki on Wednesday, both men were presented with the award and will receive €600,000 for their efforts to change the world through technology.
“The prize committee decided, for the first time in the Millennium Technology Prize’s ten year history, to award the Grand Prize to two innovators,” said Dr Ainomaija Haarla, president of the Technology Academy Finland, which is responsible for the event. “Dr Shinya Yamanaka’s work in stem cell research and Linus Torvalds’s work in open source software have transformed their fields and will remain important for generations to come.”
It is more than 20 years since Torvalds — who now lives in Portland, Oregon — released the source code he used to access Unix servers at the University of Helsinki. Since then, the system has been developed, extended and maintained by thousands of people, and is now used in millions of machines around the world.
Ahead of the prize, Torvalds told the BBC in an interview that he thought the great success of Linux — and open source in general — was to allow everyone involved to pursue their own “selfish” agendas, yet somehow contribute to something larger.
“In many ways, I actually think the real idea of open source is for it to allow everybody to be “selfish”, not about trying to get everybody to contribute to some common good.
In other words, I do not see open source as some big goody-goody “let’s all sing kumbaya around the campfire and make the world a better place”. No, open source only really works if everybody is contributing for their own selfish reasons.
He went on to explain that this was not about financial selfishness, but personal motivation.
Dr Yamanaka’s work, meanwhile, has involved developing new methods for producing stem cells that do not require human embryos — a major breakthrough in genetic medicine that potentially makes all kinds of new treatments for diseases possible. Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS) are taken from the host and effectively reprogrammed to act in certain ways.
“The discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells could not have been achieved without tremendous efforts by students and technicians in my laboratory,” he said. “My mission now is to advance iPS cell research in cooperation with many researchers around the world and bring the technology to medicine as early as possible. I will continue to work hard to achieve our goals of developing new drugs and medical treatments to intractable diseases by using iPS cell technology.”