Microprocessor inventor honored at MSU

Federico Faggin speaks at Montana State University before accepting the 2011 George R. Stibitz Lifetime Achievement Award for his development of the first microprocessor.

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The man who led the development of the microprocessor — the backbone of every electronic device — was one of five scientists honored Thursday at Montana State University with awards presented by famed biologist Edward O. Wilson.

Federico Faggin was given the George R. Stibitz Lifetime Achievement award for his work over the past 40 years in advancing computer technology.

“Faggin is a name that should be taught in our grade schools, an Edison of our modern age,” said George Keremedjiev, founder of the American Computer Museum in Bozeman and of the Wilson awards.

In 1971, Faggin led the project that developed the world’s first microprocessor, the Intel 4004. In the years that followed, Faggin developed more advanced processors and started several technology companies.

Addressing the small audience that turned out for the ceremony in MSU’s Shroyer Gym, Faggin told the story of the late night in January 1971 when, working alone in his lab at Intel, down to the last of the four microchips he had built, he finally got the microprocessor to work.

“I did not know at that time what a huge impact it would have on the world,” he said.

Indeed, now microprocessors outnumber people. There are more than a billion personal computers in the world and more than 5 billion cell phones, Faggin said. Each contains at least one microprocessor. Even the average car has 45 of the chips built in.

Modern microprocessors are about 22 nanometers in size — smaller than can be seen without an electron microscope, Faggin said. He figured they’ll shrink to about 10 nanometers before computer science hits the physical limit of how small they can be built.

That limit should be reached within 10 years or so, he predicted. After that, he said, computer technology will get even more exciting, with three-dimensional processors, graphene chips and quantum computing.

“The next 40 years are going to be much more amazing than the last 40 years have been for me,” he said.

In addition to Faggin’s award, four other scientists were presented with the 2011 Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer awards.

Peter Belhumeur, David Jacobs and John Kress were awarded for their work on a smartphone app called Leafsnap, which allows users to take a photo of a leaf, nut or blossom and have the species instantly identified.

The app uses photo analyzing technology to compare the picture taken with a massive Smithsonian Institution database of plant life.

It’s an evolutionary leap in the way botanists have studied plants, said Kress, who is chief botanist at the Smithsonian. No longer do they need to rely solely on carefully dried, pressed and preserved samples stored in large university collections.

“We built Leafsnap as a tool to allow people who are not scientists to understand how nature and the world work a lot better,” he said.

James Lotimer, founder and CEO of Lotek, was given a pioneer award for his work in developing GPS tracking tools for modern fish and wildlife monitoring systems. Nearly half a million animals around the world wear tracking devices based on Lotimer’s technology.

“We use technology to spy on animals and learn about them without altering their behaviors,” said Lotimer, who emphasized that learning more about different animals enriches life for all species.

“These animals are screaming out to be understood,” he said.

Also awarded but not present was May Berenbaum, head of entomology at the University of Illinois, for her contributions to the understanding of insect chemical ecology. She will collect her award in 2012.

The 2011 Wilson awards ceremony slanted toward technology, the advancement of which Wilson himself said was essential to the future.

“The digital revolution is changing everything from the ground up,” said the renowned biologist, who has been hailed as “the new Darwin.”

“Technology development today will have a big impact on how we understand the environment” and the living world, which is the “big challenge of science in the future.”

Michael Becker can be reached at becker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2657.

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