Praising selfishness, Linux creator Linus Torvalds nabs $1.3M technology prize

Selfishness often gets a bad rap, but if you’re Linux creator Linus Torvalds, it often has its rewards.

“Open source only really works if everybody is contributing for their own selfish reasons,” Torvalds told the BBC in a recent interview.

And it’s selfishness that’s had no small part in netting Torvalds Finland’s Millennium Technology Prize. Torvalds will share the prize with Japanese stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka, with whom he will also share the prize’s $1.3 million check.

“Linus Torvalds’s work has kept the web open for the pursuit of knowledge and for the benefit of humanity – not simply for financial interests,” Ainomaija Haarla, President of Technology Academy Finland said in a statement.

Torvalds would agree. Selfishness is, after all, more than just a quest for cash.

“The early ‘selfish’ reasons to do Linux tended to be centered about just the pleasure of tinkering,” he told the BBC.  “That was why I did it – programming was my hobby – passion, really – and learning how to control the hardware was my own selfish goal. And it turned out that I was not all that alone in that,” he said.

Fast forward twenty-one years and Torvalds’ creation has hit the big time. A massive collaborative project, Linux consists of over fifteen million lines of code contributed by over 1,300 paid developers and volunteers. And it’s everywhere: Linux can nowadays be found in devices as small as smartphones (Android’s kernel is based on Linux) and as large as supercomputers.

All of which, again, is built on selfishness. “In many ways, I actually think the real idea of open source is for it to allow everybody to be ‘selfish’, not about trying to get everybody to contribute to some common good,” he said.

Selfish or not, Torvalds is in good company. Previous winners of the Millennium Technology Prize include World Wide Web creator Tim Berners Lee , Robert Langer, Shuji Nakamura, and Michael Grätzel. This is the fourth time the prize has been given out since its inauguration in 2004.

Image via Millennium Prize

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