Robert Gallager wins 2020 Japan Prize

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Photo Courtesy of the Japan Prize Foundation

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Robert G. Gallager, emeritus professor of electrical engineering and computer science and former co-director of LIDS (left) with Svante Pääbo, director of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, during a press conference in Tokyo on Feb. 4, 2020. Gallager and Pääbo are this year's Japan Prize Laureates.

February 10, 2020

Robert G. Gallager, an emeritus professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), has been named as a 2020 Japan Prize Laureate.

Gallager, who was honored in the “Electronics, Information, Communication” prize field, was recognized for “pioneering contributions to information and coding theory,” according to an announcement from the Secretariat of the Japan Prize Selection Committee.

The Japan Prize “honors individuals 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,” according to the Tokyo-based Japan Prize Foundation, which administers the award. Gallager and this year's other laureate, Svante Paabo, director of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, will be honored at a ceremony at the National Theatre of Japan in Tokyo on April. 14.

Gallager was recognized for inventing low-density parity-check (LDPC) codes, which can achieve coding efficiency very close to its theoretical limit, known as the Shannon-limit. “His invention was crucial in enabling error-free communication over noisy communication channels and led to the realization of today's highly reliable high-speed and large-capacity communication,” according to the announcement.

The foundation noted that while Gallager first proposed LDPC codes in the 1960s, “his ideas were not adopted for the next 30 years, partially due to the difficulties of its practical implementations.” That limitation changed with rapid improvements in computer-processing capability during the 1990s. Since the early 2000s, LDPC codes have been widely adopted in digital communication and storage systems, the foundation noted: “It has become an extremely important basic technology that supports our modern digital society.”

Speaking briefly at a Feb. 4 press conference in Tokyo, Gallager encouraged today’s researchers to avoid becoming discouraged when their ideas aren’t immediately fruitful. “Don’t necessarily be upset at the idea that what you do is not useful, because perhaps it will be useful later,” he said. “Do something which is novel and interesting, and which you hope will be useful in the future.”

Gallager joined the MIT faculty in 1960, after receiving a BS from the University of Pennsylvania and SM and ScD from MIT, all in electrical engineering. MIT Press published his ScD thesis on LDPC codes as a monograph in 1963. He served as co-director of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) from 1986 to 1999, was named Fujitsu Professor in 1988, and became an emeritus professor in 2001.

His many previous awards and honors include the Centennial Medal, Medal of Honor, and Third Millennium Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Marconi Prize. He is a fellow of the IEEE, the National Academies of Science and Engineering and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Since its inception in 1985, the Foundation has awarded the Japan Prize to 98 laureates from 13 countries. Each laureate receives a certificate of merit, a commemorative medal, and a cash prize of 50 million Japanese yen (at current exchange rates, slightly more than $450,000).