A member of the generation of researchers who were the first to have access to modern supercomputers, Mr. Kennedy spearheaded early work on software programs known as parallelizing compilers, systems that can automatically spread workloads among a large number of processors, vastly speeding calculations.
Early computers were based on a single processor that would perform the steps of a software program sequentially. But in the 1970s and 1980s researchers began to look for ways to increase computing speed by harnessing tens, hundreds and even thousands of processors, in much the fashion that adding lanes to a freeway will allow more traffic to flow.
The challenge that such systems presented was the need to create programming tools that would hide the interdependencies and complexity from the scientists and engineers who wanted to use the machines as problem-solving tools.
“These compilers made it possible for mere mortals to write advanced programs,” said Edward Lazowska, the Bill and Melinda Gates professor of computer science at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Ken was the No. 1 person in parallel compiling.” (Parallel compilers are software programs that translate programmers language-oriented instructions into numeric codes that control computer operation.)
The software technology he developed has served as the foundation for successive generations of scientists and engineers who developed advanced simulations, including weather and climate prediction and the model of automobile collisions. Moreover, the fruits of his technology are now rapidly reaching broad consumer audiences both through the latest generations of personal computers and through videogame players, which now come equipped with parallel processors.
Kennedy also played an important role on the first incarnation of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), which put together the 1999 Information Technology Research: Investing in our Future report. The strong, well-supported recommendations in that report helped pave the way for a dramatic expansion of the federal government’s support for computer science research. Kennedy was also a co-PI on CRA’s Computing Community Consortium proposal, which was ultimately successful.
I was privileged to have a few interactions with Kennedy over the six years or so I’ve been at CRA and was always impressed with his grasp of policy and his willingness to do more than was necessary in service of the field.
Update: Chuck Koelbel from Rice passed along these additional details:
A memorial service for Dr. Kennedy will take place at First Presbyterian Church, 5300 Main Street, Houston, on Thursday, February 15 at 3pm. In lieu of flowers, the family suggest gifts be made to Rice University, Ken Kennedy Memorial Fund. Checks may be mailed to Rice University MS-81, P.O. Box 1892, Houston, TX, 77251-1892. To contribute online, visit giving.rice.edu, click “Make a Gift Online”, choose “Designation-Other, and type “Ken Kennedy Memorial Fund” in the Special Instruction box.