A $1 million prize for making smartphones possible

Two American computer scientists have won the $1 million Turing Award — often called the Nobel Prize for computing — for their early-career discovery of an innovative way to make the microprocessors that today power smartphones, tablets and billions of other devices.

Established chipmaking companies initially shrugged off the new, faster approach that John Hennessy and David Patterson came up with in the early 1980s in separate labs at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. But the marketplace embraced their innovation.

Today, 99 percent of the 16 billion microprocessors built each year employ their approach, using chips that require fewer transistors and less energy than those that still power desktop and mainframe computers.

Patterson coined the term for their innovation: reduced instruction set computer (RISC) microprocessors.

Hennessy, 65, went on to become president of Stanford University, and Patterson, 70, is a professor emeritus at Berkeley but still an active researcher at Google, which funds the Turing Awards. Hennessy chairs the board of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

Each academic became involved in commercial ventures, and together they wrote a textbook, Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach, that has inspired generations of engineers and scientists to make further advances.

The award is named for the celebrated British computer scientist Alan Turing, who helped crack German coded messages during World War II.

Don’t be afraid to take risks

Back at the start “there was a tremendous amount of resistance from many parts of the industry,” Hennessy recalls.

“People said, ‘Sure, sure, but in the real world this isn’t going to matter,’” Patterson adds.

Their message to young people with outside-the-box ideas?

“Be bold. Don’t be afraid of taking risks,” says Patterson.

“Do something you love,” Hennessy adds. “It’s much easier to work with passion and energy if you’re devoted to what you’re doing.”

The Turing Award is bestowed by the Association for Computing Machinery, a professional society with 100,000 members across the globe. The prize went last year to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.