Professor Alvin Roth Wins Nobel for HBS FIELD 2 Algorithm*

by on October 23rd, 2012

* Note: Professor Roth’s market design theory, which has practical applications for matching algorithms and was used for FIELD 2 emerging market location matching, was actually what won him the Nobel. 

Harvard Business School professor Alvin Roth was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences last week for his research in market design. The prize, given by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, amounts to $1.2 million, which Roth will share with University of California Los Angeles professor emeritus Lloyd S. Shapley.

Roth, who joined Harvard’s faculty in 1998 as the George Gund Professor of Economics and Business Administration, is currently on leave with Harvard Business School and the Harvard Department of Economics.  Roth made the decision last spring to move to Stanford, where he is now a visiting professor of economics, saying that he and his wife wanted a change.

While Roth knew he was on the short-list of Nobel candidates, he was alerted of the good news while fast asleep in Palo Alto, CA last Monday. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences called at 3:30am.

In his career, Roth brought a new perspective and insight to the fields of game theory and market design, challenging the foundations of the disciplines and bringing new theories to both. He is most noted for his groundbreaking work on the theory of matching markets, which he has applied to many real world problems. Roth’s work with the New York City and Boston public school systems has helped match students to schools in the metro area; his founding of the New England Program for Kidney Exchange helps match compatible kidneys with recipients using the matching theory.

On the HBS campus, however, Roth may be best known for his invention of the FIELD 2 algorithm that matches RC students with emerging market destinations based on their inputted preferences. The algorithm works to match students with their preferences based on a prioritized list of destinations while diversifying groups by gender, nationality, work experience, and section affiliation.

Though a recipient of one of the highest awards an economist can be awarded, according to The Stanford Daily, Roth does not consider himself an economist, nor does he claim to know anything about economics.  “I went into operations research with the idea of fixing things up so they work better,” he said. “Operations research led me to game theory, which later on became economics. I just stayed where I was; the borders shifted.”

In an interview with Forbes in 2010, Roth explained that he dropped out of his high school in Queens, N.Y. during his teenage years because he felt under-stimulated. This did not deter his academic pursuits, as he ultimately headed to Columbia and graduated in 1971 with a degree in Operations Research, and also received masters and doctoral degrees from Stanford in 1973 and 1974.

In a recent interview with WBUR, Roth was asked how this award would ultimately impact his career and his life. “I just won the prize on Monday,” he responds, “so it is hard to say how it will change my life in the long run. But, in the short run, I’m answering thousands of emails.”

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