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Frontiers Award to the authors of the bible for computer architecture and design

The BBVA Foundation has awarded the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Information and Communication Technologies to John Hennessy and David Patterson, founders of the new scientific area known as computer architecture, that designs the “brains” of computer systems. The awardees were the first to devise a conceptual framework that provides the field with a grounded approach to measuring performance, energy efficiency and the complexity of a computer.

As highlighted in the jury’s minutes after the awards presentation, the scientists’ ideas have laid the foundation for the current construction of modern data centers and databases. Their research has also fulfilled a didactic role, with the creation of ‘Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach’, a text of reference that, three decades later, is still considered the bible of this discipline.

The contributions of Hennessy and Patterson led to the development of RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computers), an architecture that simplified the instructions necessary for the execution of any computer program, on which the central processors of almost all types of computers are based on today. This system was developed in the 80s under the principle of “simpler is more efficient,” in the words of John Hennessy (New York, 1952).

John Hennessy, BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Information and Communication Technologies - BBVA Foundation

“We design processors the same way we design books: through experiment and trial,” explained David Patterson (Illinois, 1947). Proof of its success is that RISC technology, and its principles of maximum efficiency, are now present in 99 percent of processors of any type of system, which allows for the lightness of laptops and the long battery life of smartphones.

Science within everyone’s reach

With the book’s publication, Hennessy and Patterson changed the obscurantism that existed in the design of processors. By doing so they democratized the knowledge needed to design computers, creating a framework and defined parameters that allow us to compare systems for efficiency and speed. “Both John and I were professors, and loved giving class,” said Patterson. “We decided to write a book out of sheer frustration that there was nothing out there to help us teach our students what we knew,” added Patterson.

For his part, Hennessy explained that: “Computer architecture was being taught in a very descriptive fashion, almost if you were walking through a museum like El Prado and looking at two different paintings and trying to compare them. We weren’t happy with that approach. We wanted something that was based on important measures like performance and cost. RISC is all about efficiency,” explained Hennessy. “The key insight is that simpler is more efficient. It uses instructions that are very simple and can be executed very fast. That gave us a breakthrough in terms of performance which today has led to major advantages in terms of efficiency and power use.”

David Patterson, BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Information and Communication Technologies - BBVA Foundation

The appearance in the last decade of smaller and more powerful devices, such as smartphones and tablets, has made the benefits of RISC technology even more evident. More energy efficiency translates into longer battery life and lower costs. But the race for ever greater processor miniaturization is not over yet, posing new challenges for computer architecture.

As for the field of artificial intelligence, Hennessey adds: “The demand for performance for AI is growing by leaps and bounds, so we are going to rethink the way we design computers to design them to do those highly intensive tasks, like machine learning, very efficiently. And that is going to lead to lots of new innovation and excitement, and opportunities for young people to make important contributions.”

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