Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Linus Torvalds in Helsinki for Chance at Finnish Tech Glory

Linus Torvalds is in Helsinki today, vying for a million-dollar prize and a whole bunch of hometown recognition.

He’s up for the Millennium Technology Prize — an award given out every two years by the Technology Academy Finland, a foundation set up to — you guessed it — promote technology in Finland. 

The prize is given to inventors of “life-enhancing technological innovation,” organizers say, and as far as many geeks are concerned, a free version of Unix that runs on low-cost Intel processors definitely fits that description. Torvalds’ competition: Shinya Yamanaka, the University of California, San Francisco researcher who invented an embryo-free method of creating stem cells for medical research.

The winner is set to be announced tomorrow. He will join the ranks of scientists who’ve pioneered somewhat obscure but critical innovations including DNA fingerprinting, organic light-emitting diodes, and the ARM 32-bit RISC microprocessor.

With the Millennium Technology Prize comes a dangerous-looking silicon-tipped sculpture and a big pile of cash. The total prize pool for this year’s award is €1.2 million, or about $1.5 million. The amount that actually gets handed over to the winner is up to the judges, though.

No matter who wins, Torvalds and Yamanaka “may well be talked about for centuries to come,” said Technology Academy Finland President Ainomaija Haarla, in a canned comment on the foundation’s website.

Not bad for someone who started his signature project from his bedroom back when he lived with his mom in Helsinki.

Torvalds lives with his family in Portland, Oregon, but both he and Yamanaka are in Helsinki for the award presentation. Torvalds left Finland in the late 1990s to come work in Silicon Valley, but he’s still a pretty big celebrity in his motherland.

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