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This article is from the In-Depth Report The World Wide Web Turns 25

Millennium Foundation Recognizes Inventors and Technologies That Changed the World

Scientists at Bell Labs, Harvard--M.I.T. and the University of Leicester are among the finalists for the $1.8-million Finnish award



Courtesy of the Millennium Prize Foundation

Trailblazing technologies that improved high-speed long-distance communication, provided the blueprint for mobile phone networks, introduced DNA fingerprinting, and created new drug delivery systems were announced Tuesday as finalists for Finland's 2008 Millennium Technology Prize.

The Millennium Prize Foundation established the biennial award in 2004 to recognize innovative approaches in areas such as health care and sustainable energy. It looks at "specific, groundbreaking innovation that has a clear, measurable impact on people's quality of life," Finnish entrepreneur Jorma Ollila, who chairs both Nokia's and Royal Dutch Shell's boards of directors, said during a press conference at the New York Academy of Sciences announcing the six scientists who will share the $1.8-million award. The foundation will announce the winner, who takes home $1.3 million of the purse, on June 11 in Helsinki. The other finalists will share the remaining money.

Randy Giles, director of optical subsystems and advanced photonics at Alcatel–Lucent's Bell Labs in New Jersey; Emmanuel Desurvire, director of Thales Corporate Research & Technology's physics research group in France; and David Payne, director of the University of Southampton's Optoelectronics Research Center in England, each earned finalist spots for their contributions to telecommunications through the invention of the erbium-doped fiber amplifier (EDFA), which made possible the global high-capacity fiber-optic network that serves as the Internet's backbone.

The amplifier is crucial to boosting degraded light signals over long distances, enabling transmissions to travel over 7,450 miles (12,000 kilometers), Marja Makarow, chairwoman of the award selection committee and chief executive of the European Science Foundation, said during Tuesday's press conference, adding, "Without this innovation, the World Wide Web would not function as it does today."

Andrew Viterbi, president of investment and advisory firm Viterbi Group, LLC, and co-founder of telecommunications provider Qualcomm, Inc., won finalist recognition for his development of the Viterbi algorithm, a technique that has advanced the design and implementation of modern wireless communication systems. Mobile phone networks rely on the algorithm to eliminate noise. Computer disk drives, MP3 players and systems that cull information received from deep space also use the algorithm.

Without the Viterbi algorithm, "we would not have cell phones," Makarow said. "Communication is a vital element of building democracies around the world."

The DNA fingerprinting technique that finalist Alec Jeffreys, a professor of genetics at the University of Leicester in England, developed elevated the field of forensic science and has played an important role in the resolution of paternity and immigration disputes. In addition to catching criminals and exonerating the wrongfully imprisoned, DNA testing was crucial in identifying the remains of Nazi Josef Mengele (by comparing DNA obtained from his exhumed skeleton with that from his widow and son), determining whether Thomas Jefferson had sired a son with one of his slaves, and confirming that Anna Anderson was not the last Russian grand dutchess, Anastasia Romanov, as she had claimed.

The committee also selected the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Robert Langer, an institute professor with Harvard–M.I.T. Division of Health Sciences and Technology, as a finalist for his development of transdermal drug delivery systems that allow the administration of medicine through the skin without needles or other invasive methods. His work in drug-releasing polymers eventually led to the creation of a new way to treat brain cancer, and he has also been active in the area of tissue engineering, creating synthetic replacement for biological tissues.

Langer said during the press conference that, when he first proposed the idea of using plastics to release medication, the idea was met with "a lot of disdain" by his fellow academics. Today, however, advanced drug delivery systems are used by more than 100 million people worldwide every year.

The selection committee chose these finalists from 64 nominations across 26 different countries (20 of the nominations were for U.S. scientists). This is the first time that the committee chose more than one finalist. Previous winners were Tim Berners-Lee in 2004 (who brought hypertext to the Internet, making the World Wide Web we know today) and Shuji Nakamura in 2006 (responsible for inventing blue and white light-emitting diodes, LEDs).

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