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Gilles Kahn: a visionary

Gilles Kahn © INRIA Photo A.Eidelman

The first computer scientist to be elected to the French Academy of Sciences, Gilles Kahn is a talented and visionary researcher with an international reputation.

Biography of Gilles Kahn

Born in Paris on 17 April 1946, Gilles Kahn studied at the École Polytechnique (class of 1964) and then at Stanford University (1968-1971). During his career, he completed two long research placements abroad with renowned scientists: first at the University of Edinburgh (1975-1976) and then at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge (1995). His colleagues Philippe Flajolet and Gérard Huet describe the long-term vision of a great scientist who understood way back in the 1970s that computer science was a scientific discipline in its own right. Twenty years later, in 1997, he became the first member of Inria to be elected to the French Academy of Sciences as a computer science researcher.

Upon his return from Stanford, he joined the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), before moving to the Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (IRIA) at Rocquencourt in 1976 as manager of a project on the development of programming environments. In 1983, he helped to found the Sophia Antipolis research unit, where he coordinated scientific research for the director. In 1993, Gilles Kahn joined the institute's senior management team as Scientific Director, before becoming Chairman and CEO in May 2004. In these two key roles, he was highly influential in the development of Inria's strategic plans, particularly the last plan but one (2003-2007), which laid the foundations for joint research concerning computer science and life sciences.

As an expert, Gilles Kahn has often been called upon to undertake assignments in the national interest. In 1996, he was a member of the commission of inquiry into Ariane flight 501. Between 1997 and 2005, he co-authored three reports. The first, concerning research on telecommunications, was submitted to the Minister of Industry in 1997. The second, submitted to the President of France in 2000, concerned access to knowledge for all. The third, produced for the Ministers of Research and Culture in 2005, concerned online legal services.

A homage

Two close colleagues of Gilles Kahn - Philippe Flajolet and Gérard Huet - talk about the man and his contributions to science.

"Gilles Kahn's personal research was based around several fundamental ideas: giving meaning to programs, laying the foundations for competition in computing processes, and developing the methods and tools to develop software to meet specifications. For him, the common theme uniting these strands was mathematical modelling and the logic of the computing process.

Historically, the first major contribution associated with his name is the discovery of what would later be known as "Kahn networks" (IFIP, 1971). These were a conceptual framework for describing asynchronous distributed computing. This work was part of a wave of ideas shared with Bell Laboratories, where the initial work on the Unix operating system was being done at the time.

Gilles Kahn was one of the forerunners of programming language semantics, which gives a precise mathematical meaning to a computer program. In particular, he contributed, in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh, where he spent a sabbatical year in 1975-76, to the development of an important theory. In 1983, he helped to found the Inria Sophia-Antipolis research unit. There, he developed the elegant theory of "natural semantics". This theory allows a program to be manipulated like a formula - that is to say, its properties can be calculated. This breakthrough paved the way for the development of programming environments in which programs are manipulated together with their specification.

The next idea was to manipulate the proofs themselves, thus allowing mechanical verification of the properties of programs and software. In fact, Gilles Kahn would play a prominent role in the commission of inquiry into the software failure on the first mission of the Ariane 5 rocket.

Gilles Kahn was a researcher to the core. He loved debating ideas with other researchers, be they academics or PhD students. All the scientists who worked with him will remember the warmth and intelligence of those exchanges. His scientific vision was remarkably broad, and he was enthusiastic about interactions between computer science and other fields such as mathematics, physics, biology and medicine."

Gérard Huet & Philippe Flajolet

"The Scientific Challenges of the 21st Century"

On 30 March 2004, Gilles Kahn delivered a scientific lecture at the French Academy of Sciences. Watch the video of his speech, which was given as part of a series of conferences and debates on the subject of "The Scientific Challenges of the 21st Century".

Information and communication science and technologies (ICST) are present in all fields of engineering and production and are involved in the majority of technological innovations. They play a strategic role in matters of defence and security. They form the basis of all service activities, impacting education, scientific research, access to culture, and interactions between individuals or between individuals and organizations.

In scientific terms, these disciplines are relatively new and their scope has been significantly underestimated.

The future will be one characterized by big issues in which science, technology and innovative practices are intimately intertwined, giving young researchers plenty to get their teeth into: the construction of vast networks of interconnected computers, the capacity to process in detail data which has meaning to human beings (images, natural language, perception), the quality control and security of software on which our lives can depend, and the management of large volumes of heterogeneous data which can be used to monitor the state of our planet.

Last but not least, information and communication science and technologies are being called upon to play a major role in life sciences and clinical medicine.

Keywords: Gilles Kahn Académie des sciences Commissariat à l'énergie atomique Président-directeur général Researcher Défis scientifiques Conférence