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Q&A: A Sure Thing

2011 ACM A.M. Turing Award winner Judea Pearl

"Nothing came out of my Ph.D. dissertation except one piece of analysis that physicists later named 'Pearl vortex,' surpassing my wildest dream for immortality."

Credit: Richard Morgenstein

Artificial intelligence pioneer Judea Pearl discusses probability, causation, the calculus of intervention, and counterfactuals.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the November 2012 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

For those unaware of the life, interests, and tragic death of the brilliant Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, a suitable place to begin would be his Wikipedia page ( Most readers of Communications know of his murder in Pakistan in 2002 by anti-U.S. militants, so read especially the "Aftermath" and "Legacy" sections, marveling how the empathetic world reacted, with the most creditable the formation of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (, seeking to heal the bitterness and distrust that has led to so much violence since 9/11.

Among those helped by the Foundation are a number of talented young Pakistani journalists. Another aspect of the Foundation's work from which Pakistan can continue to benefit are the transcripts and videos of the Annual Daniel Pearl Lecture Series at the University of California, Los Angeles and at Stanford University, with links through the Foundation's ++Web site; subjects covered are open-ended and reflect Pearl's diverse personal interests.

Almost certainly unknown to Pakistanis and others outside the computer science community are the outstanding scientific and scholarly achievements of Judea Pearl, Daniel's father and the Foundation's prime mover, whose smiling face looks out from the cover of Communications (June 2012), which included an interview "A Sure Thing" ( covering his work in artificial intelligence and his winning the ACM A.M. Turing Award, the equivalent of a Nobel prize in computer science.

The interviewer's final question and Pearl's response should be of interest to all: "Does your research inform your work at the Daniel Pearl Foundation, especially in conducting interfaith dialogues?" to which he replied, "I have an advantage over my dialogue partners in that I'm an atheist, and I understand religious myths are just metaphors, or poetry, for genuine ideas we find difficult to express otherwise. So, yes, you could say I use computer science in my religious dialogues, because I view religion as a communication language. True, it seems futile for people to argue if a person goes to heaven from the East Gate or the West Gate. But, as a computer scientist, you forgive the futility of such debates, because you appreciate the computational role of the gate metaphor."

It is indeed gratifying that the venerated Pakistani public figure Abdul Sattar Edhi is on the Foundation's board. It is through him I would urge the government of Pakistan to invite Pearl as a state guest to speak to our media and on our campuses.

Q. Isa Daudpota
Islamabad, Pakistan

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