Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

Philip Emeagwali
interviewed by Mary Bellis for The Inventor's Guide.

About Nigeria how do you envision your beginning affecting your end?
Nigeria is a west African nation of over 100 million energetic people. It is endowned with lots of natural resources but lacks human resources. It was recently ranked by the World Bank as the 13th poorest nation in the world. Due to financial reasons, I dropped out of school after eight years of formal schooling. During 1967-70 period, my family was homeless. Sometimes, we slept in refugee camps, abandoned school buildings and bombed houses.

The hardship of living in a refugee camp made me pyschologically strong. It is called learning from the school of hard knocks. It made me street smart. It equipped me with a greater sense of determination and vision.

Adversities such as being homeless and going to prison has made many people stronger. Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X came out of prison stronger. The hardships that I encountered in the past will help me succeed in the future.

Family photo taken with my cousin Charles (third from right) with me standing on the right (December 1962 at Uromi, Nigeria). I dropped out of school four and half years later.

You speak about the influence nature's own creativity has had upon your science theories, how did this begin?
I have expertise in five different fields which helps me to easily understand the analogy between my scientific problems and those occuring in nature. First, I identify an analogous problem in nature and borrow from it. It is smarter to borrow from nature than to reinvent the wheels.

Your education during your teenage years was outside of the school system can you talk about that experience?
It was the toughest experience of my life. I dropped out of high school four times between the ages of 12 to 17. When I enrolled in college at age 19, I had a total of eight years of formal classroom education. As a result, I was not comfortable with formal lectures and receiving regular homework assignments. I preferred to study those subjects that were of interest to me.

I learned by reading the classic but out-of-date works of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Betrand Russell and Albert Einstein. Since there were no formally trained scientists in my hometown, the famous commercial city of Onitsha, I gained a word-of-mouth reputation as an expert in mathematics, physics and astronomy and students came to consult me in these subjects.

What brought about you leaving Africa?
I wanted to become a mathematician, physicist or astronomer. I could not study these subjects at the cutting-edge level in Africa. During the week that I arrived in the United States, I saw an airport, used a a telephone, used a library, talked with a scientist, and was shown a computer for the first time in my life.

Today, I have access to a $55 million supercomputer while many African scientists do not have access to a personal computer. The greater opportunity enabled me to make important discoveries and inventions.

In 1989 you won the coveted Gordon Bell Prize for your work with massively parallel computers. You programmed the Connection Machine to compute a world record 3.1 billion calculations per second using 65,536 processors to simulate oil reservoirs. This was done over the Internet. I was wondering how you choose or found the 65,536 computers to help you?
The 65,536 processors were inside the Connection Machine. I accessed the Connection Machine over the Internet. The Connection Machines owned by the United States government laboratories were made available to me because they were considered impossible to program and there was no great demand for them at that time. In fact, the national laboratories that purchased them were embarrased because their scientists could not program them and they were hardly being used. The labs were happy that I was brave enough to attempt to program it and the $5 million computer was left entirely to my use. I was their human guinea pig.

here for full-scale 65536-processor Connection Machine.

Can you describe the Connection Machine and give us an explanation of how it all worked?
The Connection Machine was the most powerful computer in the world. It is a complex computer and it will take forever to completely describe how it works.

Briefly, to program it requires an absolute understanding of how all 65,536 processors are interconnected. The processing nodes are configured as a cube in a 12-dimensional universe, although we only use it to solve problems arising from our three-dimensional universe.

A 32-node cube in five-dimensional universe.

To perform the world's fastest computation, I divided and and evenly distributed the calculations among the 65,536 processors and then squeezed the most performance from the each processor. It took me 1057 pages to describe the hundreds of mathematical equations, algorithms and programming techniques that I invented and used. The gory details will be of interest to only mathematicians and supercomputer nerds. However, for your amusement, they include equations such as

That was 1989 and what you did was considered at that time to be one of the 20 national grand challenges in science and engineering: petroleum reservoir simulation. What is the grand challenge for you today?
The greatest grand challenge for any scientist is discovering how to prevent the spread of HIV and finding the cure or an effective vaccine for AIDS.

Eighty percent of Americans with HIV do not know they are infected. One out of every 100 American men is HIV positive. The rate of infection has reached epidemic proportions in 40 developing nations. Worldwide, 23 million people are infected with the HIV virus.

Because I am not formally trained in the medical sciences, I can bring in new ideas to AIDS research and the cross-fertilization of ideas from different fields could be a valuable contribution to finding the cure for AIDS.

It could be easier for me to develop an AIDS vaccine than to solve the next grand challenge in computer science.

You have submitted 41 inventions to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office concerning seven technologies. Can you give us expanded details?
Inventors are reluctant to provided expanded details of their inventions until they receive full patent protection. The reason is that the Patent and Trademark Office can deny patents to inventors that publicly provided details of their invention.

Briefly, my inventions are on how to design powerful computers and computations.

You invented the Hyperball nature-inspired computer network, can you describe it for us?
I observed that many problems that occur in nature possess a spherical structure. For example, the Earth is spherical and, for this reason, forecasting global warming is best done on a hyperball computer which has numerous processing nodes interconnected in a spherical-structure. This was what motivated me to invent the hyperball computer.

on photograph for full-scale Hyperball nature-inspired computer network invented by Emeagwali. The red dots represents the processing nodes while the red lines shows which nodes are directly connected.

You have described your research approach as multi-disciplinary, unorthodox, intuitive and nature-inspired. Tell us more?
I am a mathematician who relies heavily on qualitative problem solving techniques. I studied the most influential scientists and inventors to learn what made them different from ordinary people and discovered that the most creative people in the world scored lower than expected in SAT and IQ tests and most only earned high school diplomas.

Henri Poincare, considered one of the world's greatest mathematicians, had an extremely low IQ. Thomas Edison (electricity), Benjamin Banneker (clock), Garret Morgan (traffic light), Henry Ford (automobile) and Alexander Graham Bell (telephone) had 8th to 12th grade education. Bill Gates (microsoft), Ted Turner (CNN), Bill Lear (Lear jet), Soichiro Honda (Honda cars), and Howard Hughes (Hughes aircraft) never earned a college degree.

These geniuses had average IQ but made the world a better place by using their intuition. The lesson that I learned from the greatest inventors and scientists is that I will invent and discover more things by deemphasizing quantitative methods and using a multi-disciplinary, unorthodox, intuitive and nature-inspired approach. I learned a lesson from Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) who wrote:

"If you do not rest upon the good foundation of nature, you will labor with little honor and less profit. [T]hose who take for their standard any one but nature --- the mistress of all masters --- weary themselves in vain."

You have stated that you have found algorithms, software and computers can be enantiomeric --- that is, they have left-handed and right-handed versions like shoes. How did you apply that observation?
Computers that are commercially available are symmetric or non-handed but it is possible that some existing software and algorithms are left- or right-handed. I have demonstrated that you can apply a righted-handed algorithm and software to a right-handed computer. But I have not shown how to apply the right- and left-handed algorithms and software to applications.

How they can be applied may depend on the thought processes that led to my discovering them. I discovered enantiomeric computing by observing everyday things such as fitting an ear muff over an ear, slipping our feet into shoes, and putting our hands inside gloves.

Because I believe that humans are computers, I conjectured that computers, like people, can have left- and right-handed versions.

Since the left hand has a left glove that complements it, I reasoned that a left-handed computer must have left-handed software and algorithms that also complements it. Therefore, efforts to implement a left-handed software on a right-handed computer may be as awkward as putting your left shoe on your right leg. This discovery is weird and totally unexpected.

Because this discovery is new, it will take a while to fully understand its implications and applications. Our lives sometimes depends on computers performing as predicted. When an algorithm or software is symmetric, that is, has no left- and right-handed versions, it will not matter whether it is executed in a right- or left-handed computer. For example, because a pen or fork or hammer is symmetric, it does not matter whether we hold it in our right or left hand. On the other hand, a glove is either right- or left-handed and it matters whether we wear it in our right or left hands. It is possible that a right-handed computer can perform in unpredictable manner when a left-handed software is unintentionally executed in it.

On the optimistic side, it might be possible that a right-handed computer may be more useful than a left-handed computer. Remember the drug called thalidomide which is manufactured in both left- and right-handed forms. One form of it causes birth defects when taken by pregnant women and the other form is safely prescribed by doctors as a sedative.

The right- and left-hand versions of the lactic acid molecule.

The right- and left-hand versions of the lactic acid molecule. (Scientific American, 1997)

I am most intrigued by your statements in regards to nature and technology, and how your computing networks have dealt with the awe inspiring powers of nature like the oil field flows, the weather, the movement of the oceans. Are you on the brink of solving any of nature's deeper mysteries and what does a scientist owe mother nature?
Scientists try to discover or unravel the mysteries of nature. Some of the problems we are trying to solve has been solved in nature.

My focus is not on solving nature's deeper mysteries. It is on using nature's deeper mysteries to solve important societal problems.

Scientists and engineers draw their inspirations from nature. Physicists try to understand the laws of nature. Mathematicians use symbols called partial differential equations to describe natural phenomena such as weather forecasting and petroleum reservoir simulation. Computer scientists try to design neural computers that emulate the human brains. And so on.

Why the choice of music for your web site?

The music played at my web site reflects my personal taste. At home, I play soukous, highlife and reggae. Highlife has a mesmerizing effect on me. Highlife dance band music flourished in Nigeria and Ghana during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Soukous is an uptempo and infectious east African music that is a current rage in Paris dance halls. It has Congolese, Cuban and Caribbean rhythms and elements of American country music of the 1930s and 40s. Soukous live performances include energetic female show dancers and their fast shaking of the pelvis. Sokous means "shake." I always feel delirious after a sokous concert.

Related articles/websites

Emeagwali's Website

Genius of our Age

A Nigerian Hero

Letters to Emeagwali

Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

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Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

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