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Communications of the ACM

Editor's letter

Time for Two Annual Turing Awards


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ACM should bestow two Turing Awards each year, starting immediately. I do not mean to two people; a number of Turing Awards have been shared. But rather, my position is that the ACM should award several Turing Awards every year. These awards could be staggered by six months, perhaps in spring and fall, to ensure each winner receives the focused attention of the computing community and the world they richly deserve. This attention properly focuses on their research accomplishments and impact on the world.

Why give two Turing Awards?

Since the Turing Award was first given in 1966, the scope and impact of computing has grown immeasurably. At that time, more than 50 years ago, there were dozens of computers sold each year, with a few hundred computers in the world. By 2000, as the Internet transformed the world, computer sales had increased 10 million-fold, with PCs exceeding 120 million per year, with half a billion computers in the world. With the advent of smart-phones, annual sales have grown by another 10-fold, exceeding 1.5 billion each year, with over five million "apps." Perhaps invention has not grown linearly with the number of computers, but as scholars of innovation would expect at least n0.5 rates (10,000-fold) or even at log2n rates (25-fold). These represent phenomenal growth in innovation in computing.

But there are more measures of growth. The number of programmers worldwide (25 million software developers) and computer science researchers (over 24,000 published authors in the ACM Digital Library) are extraordinary, driving an incredible rate of invention and innovation. And in recent decades, the computing community has grown dramatically in China, India, and throughout Asia, South America, Arabia, and Africa. Among that dramatic breadth of activity, how can it be that only one is worthy of a Turing Award each year?

We know that it cannot be. It's the right thing for ACM to broaden its recognition by granting two Turing Awards each year. But not only is it the right thing to recognize extraordinary leaders, but it's good to promote the field of computing. A Turing Award is a recognition, empowering more computing champions and leaders!


It's the right thing for ACM to broaden its recognition by granting two Turing Awards each year.


Why now? Well to speak frankly, it's already long overdue. We should have expanded to multiple Turing Awards in the 1980s when computers exploded into the lives of ordinary people with the spread of the PC, and leading to an explosion of business, entertainment and personal applications. We should have expanded to multiple Turing Awards in the late 1990s when the explosive growth of the Internet transformed information access, music sharing, and connected the world at a speed and breadth unimaginable in human history. And yes, we should have expanded to multiple Turing Awards in the 2010s as smartphones transformed the personal and business lives of billions around the world.

Let's do it now! Starting now, the ACM must increase the recognition of extraordinary contributions to computing being made by leading researchers today by increasing the number of Turing Awards granted each year to two!

Please lend your voice by writing to me (eic@cacm.acm.org) or commenting on the Web.

Andrew A. Chien, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

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Author

Andrew A. Chien is the William Eckhardt Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Chicago, Director of the CERES Center for Unstoppable Computing, and a Senior Scientist at Argonne National Laboratory.


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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.


Comments


James Van Zandt

Perhaps the additional award should honor one of the other computing pioneers (Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, Tim Berners-Lee...).


Andrew Chien

Thanks James! Those are of course interesting suggestions, and while I don't see an eligibility requirement, I don't know of any cases where at Turing Award was given posthumously. I would note that Sir Tim Berners-Lee is in fact the 2016 A.M. Turing Award winner!


CACM Administrator

[[The following letters are published on the Letters to the Editor pages of the August 2021 Communications of the ACM (https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2021/8/254319).
--CACM Administrator]]

In the June issue of Communications, Editor-in-Chief Andrew A. Chien suggested in his Editor's Letter (p. 5) that ACM consider bestowing two A.M. Turing Awards per year. Reader reactions to his idea included the following:

Immediately upon reading your June Editor's letter, my reaction was "No!" because I thought two annual awards would reduce the stature of each and minimize the honor to recipients and even to Alan Turing. But I was hasty in forming my opinion. I reread your argument and changed my opinionI now believe we need to think even bigger.

The number "two" suggests a division between hardware and software. But our discipline, as you note, has grown far and wide. It is more complex than this dichotomy. I propose four categories, understanding that not all need be awarded in a given year. These are: hardware design or fabrication; software languages or algorithms; networks or communications; and ethical or sustainable practices. The last category may appear out of place. With respect, here is where I disagree with your interpretation that the A.M. Turing Award is for contributions by leading researchers [my emphasis.]

The published criterion for the Award states: "The contributions should be of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field." There is no mention of academia vs. industry. ACM has for a long time recognized the practice of computer science as well as pure research. An excellent example is Charlie Bachman, industry practitioner, and the 1973 Turing recipient.

Applications of ethics and the practice of sustainable methods can still meet the "major technical importance" criterion while encouraging meaningful contributions by practitioners and researchers alike. (I would include in this contributions to teaching and advancing knowledge, as evidenced by Aho and Ullman.)

Additionally, ethical and sustainability dilemmas are rapidly appearing with the rise of AI and ML, resource scarcity, manufacturing practices, and crypto-currency mining. We, the ACM, should encourage practical solutions to these global issues that affect humankind.

I welcome dialogue, discussion, and debate of these ideas. Thank you for initiating the process.

Gary Rector
Cave Creek, AZ, USA

Very bad idea to have two Turing awards. That award is for truly outstanding computer scientists. Do not cheapen it.

Alexander Simonelis
Montreal, Canada

Perhaps it would be a good idea to take all the other ACM awards and make them all Turing Awards. The Turing Award could be more like the Oscars, and given by Category at a big event.

Maurice van Swaaij
Brooklyn, NY, USA

I think the award is not truly international at this point and efforts should be made in that direction.

Alex Thomasian
Pleasantville, NY, USA

You asked for input about it being time for "two annual Turing Awards" each year. I feel very dubious about this change. Why, you may ask? Because, unless something is done to dramatically alter the way that the Awardees are selected, ACM will likely just be doubling the number of Caucasian males who have overwhelmingly received the Association's highest honor.

Certainly Aho and Ullman were long-deserving of this award. Indeed their colleague, John Hopcroft, received his in 1986. As for myself, as someone who both studied from and later taught from the AHU collection of books, I was glad to see the remaining duo's pioneering efforts take their place this year alongside many other notable gurus and graybeards over the decades. I am not intending to disparage the work of anyone on the Turing Award list. But, as a female computer scientist, it is yet another disappointment to see two more white guys get selected for this recognition.

ACM can and must do better than this. There are many outstanding Black, Indian, Asian, Latinx, female, non-binary, and other computation pioneers, deserving of this award, who continue to not be represented here. What message is ACM giving to youth? Would Turing himself, who was prosecuted and subjected to chemical castration because he was homosexual, be proud to see such overt bias perpetuated, year after year after year by the ACM in his name? I think not.

So, if you are intent upon giving out two Turing Awards each year, going forward, then the rule must be that only one of them can be given to a Caucasian male. You can start by making sure that your nominating committee has a preponderance of non-Caucasian non-males doing the search and selection of awardees. Perhaps you should have a hiatus of five years where zero Caucasian males can be eligible to receive the Turing Award, so that the other races and genders have a chance to catch up. Just look harder. There are plenty of highly qualified candidates in the world that would fit these expansive demographics.

I hope you will seriously consider this suggestion.

Rebecca Mercuri
Senior Life Member of ACM
Hamilton, NJ, USA

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF'S RESPONSE:

Its great to see that thoughtful and provocative responses that my proposal to have two Turing Awards evoked! There really are many reasons why increasing the number of Turing Awards would advance computing as a field, community, and recognize more of our remarkable leaders. Keep the letters coming!

Andrew A. Chien
Chicago, IL, USA


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