Viterbi Receives National Medal of Science

    Former UCSD professor and wireless pioneer Andrew Viterbi was awarded a National Medal of Science this week, in part for his work on cell-phone technology known as the Viterbi algorithm.

    The inention efficiently decodes digital transmission sequences to recover the original audio of cell phone signals and eliminate noise interference.

    Viterbi is a founder of San Diego startup Linkabit and a co-founder of Qualcomm. He also made important contributions to the Code Division Multiple Access wireless technology, which revolutionized the theory of digital communications.

    “Andrew Viterbi’s impact in wireless communications has been utterly profound,” said Larry Larson, professor and chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering. “Virtually every cell phone in use today employs the Viterbi algorithm.”

    The algorithm is still used the same way as when it was invented, but the hardware requirements have changed, Larson said.

    “When first invented, the Viterbi algorithm was incredibly efficient but still took a big computer to run it,” Larson said. “Now the same algorithm can be implemented on a tiny sliver of silicon. It’s now so easy to implement. I think the Viterbi algorithm is like addition and subtraction: We’ll still be using it in a thousand years.”

    For example, when space probes send messages back from Jupiter, researchers use the Viterbi algorithm to remove noise after millions of miles of travel and decode the signals.

    Ramesh Rao, director of the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology and a Jacobs School professor of electrical engineering, said he is proud to work with Viterbi on the Cal-(IT)2 Advisory Board.

    “Through the Viterbi algorithm and his co-founding of Qualcomm, Andy Viterbi has had a seminal influence on the building blocks of the wireless revolution,” Rao said. “As an information theorist himself, he has been a supporter from day one of our Information Theory and Applications Center, which seeks to apply the methods embodied in information theory to other disciplines, especially systems biology.”

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