Esteemed Chinese computer scientist awarded Kyoto Prize for work playing ‘a vital role in modern society’

·3-min read

Renowned Chinese computer scientist Andrew Yao Chi-chih, whose research has had far-reaching implications for e-commerce and cryptoasset management, has been recognised with the international Kyoto Prize in advanced technology.

The 74-year-old Shanghai-born scientist was honoured for his contributions to computer science and its continuous influence on issues such as security, secure computing and big data processing.

Yao, the dean of the institute for interdisciplinary information sciences at Tsinghua University in Beijing, is known for introducing secure multiparty computation (MPC) in 1982, a concept that enables computation on encrypted values.

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“If you use MPC, it’s possible to have multiple databases do any joint computations without leaking its own data,” Yao said in an online lecture on Wednesday. “We can share data without seeing them.”

World renowned computer scientist Andrew Yao Chi-chih said he switched from physics after discussing algorithms with his wife and on reading The Art of Computer Programming by Donald Knuth. Photo: Weibo
World renowned computer scientist Andrew Yao Chi-chih said he switched from physics after discussing algorithms with his wife and on reading The Art of Computer Programming by Donald Knuth. Photo: Weibo

He explained its application with the “millionaires’ problem” in which two people wish to compare who has more money without revealing any quantitative information, that is without them confessing how much they have.

“The question is, is it possible to carry out a conversation so that in the end both Alice and Bob would know the answer who is richer but without knowing anything else about the data on the other side,” he said. “I showed this can be accomplished [using] the garbled circuit.”

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He said the past four decades had seen many advances in MPC theory and in hardware and algorithms, with real-world applications in the works for fields such as financial technology, data training and drug discovery.

“Yao’s work has provided essential concepts and models that play a vital role in modern society. These concepts and models are most evident in areas such as in e-commerce and cryptoasset management,” said the Inamori Foundation in Japan which gives out the annual award.

“Yao’s concept and principle of quantum communication complexity enable quantitative performance evaluation of quantum computing. These achievements have a great impact and ripple effect on the information science field.”

Yao transitioned from physics to computer science in 1973, a year after obtaining a PhD degree in physics at Harvard University in the United States.

“Finally, I was a certified, real physicist. That didn’t last long though,” he said, recalling when his wife introduced him to algorithms.

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He said he read an early draft of The Art of Computer Programming, a book on algorithms by computer scientist Donald Knuth, a 1996 Kyoto Prize Laureate, with whom Yao later worked at Stanford University.

“It virtually changed my life. In this master book, he literally created a new field of study that also has inspired generations of new computer scientists.

“I could not stop thinking about the research questions raised in the book. It became an obsession so much that I soon quit my postdoc job in physics in order to pursue graduate study in computer science full time.

“I remember that my mother was really concerned because it seemed that I had given up all these years of work in physics but my wife was very supportive,” he said.

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