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Communications of the ACM

Letters to the editor

Tales of Two Turings


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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 opinion—I 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

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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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Getting Down to Basics

I was thrilled when I opened my email weeks ago to discover Aho and Ullman were the ACM A.M. Turing Award 2020 recipients, and I was delighted to see Al Aho and Jeff Ullman on the cover of June Communications when it came in the mail today.

But I was dismayed when reading the article by Neil Savage, which contains two glaring mistakes.

Ullman joined the faculty of Princeton, not Columbia, from Bell Labs. I know because I had the great fortune to learn from Professor Ullman at Princeton—he broke open the palace gates of computer science for his students, and sparked a lifelong passion for CS.

The article states that Aho and Ullman are being awarded for their contribution to both the theory and practice of computer languages, but it is for so much more than that—they were also instrumental in the foundations of the Analysis of Algorithms, as the Turing citation indicates. As students at Princeton, we enjoyed the inherent beauty of a gorgeous and complex subject explicated by some of the finest minds and authors, using the seminal text The Design and Analysis of Computer Algorithms by Aho, Hopcroft, and Ullman, known affectionately as AHU. In addition, Ullman was also instrumental in advancing database theory, as well as codifying VLSI theory, as his textbooks and courses at Stanford University will attest.

Also noteworthy, Ullman was able to bring Unix 6th edition to Princeton—in 1975, we were set up in a small lab in the Engineering Quad on a PDP-11/45. With great support from Bell Labs, Peter Eichenberger, Tom Lyon, Eric Schmidt, and I started a port of Unix to the IBM 370 architecture. None of that would have been possible without JDU.

It is fitting that Aho and Ullman are recognized for their many seminal contributions—let's appreciate all the great work they did—it is a lot more than "just compilers."

Joseph P. Skudlarek, ACM Senior Member Lake Oswego, OR, USA

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Who Programmed the Early Generations of Commercially Available Computers in the U.S.?

Thomas J. Misa's "Dynamics of Gender Bias in Computing" (June 2021), judging that the composition of the programming workforce before 1970 has been mischaracterized, overlooks important sources in establishing a valid workforce composition "starting point." The article looks at SHARE (IBM "scientific" users), CDC Coop (CDC 1604 "scientific" users), UNIVAC USE (UNIVAC 1100-series "scientific" users), Burroughs CUBE (mostly Burroughs 5000 "scientific" users) and Mark IV (Informatics Mark IV utility users of IBM "business-oriented" machines) user groups as a basis for estimating the proportion of women programmers in the programming workforce. Even after assigning weights to these numbers according to installed computer base, the great weight given "scientific" installations invalidates their use as a representation of the total work force. If user groups are a valid source, IBM GUIDE and COMMON for "business-oriented" users must be included. There were far more "business-oriented" installations than "scientific" installations. Installed computer base was reported monthly in the early days of Datamation magazine and issues are available at the Computer History Museum.


Civilian and military "business-oriented" data processing departments already existed in significant numbers before the first computers were sold.


Civilian and military "business-oriented" data processing departments already existed in significant numbers before the first computers were sold. They were filled with—mostly IBM—CAMs (punched card accounting machines), programmed with wired plugboards. Programming was complex; in 1955 I took an intensive six-week introductory course in the Air Force. In military and civilian businesses these machines were handled and programmed by male high school graduates. They were as skilled as automobile mechanics but happened, upon graduation, to take their first job in an office rather than a repair shop. "Business-oriented" computers were usually introduced into shops that already had PCAM-based data processing departments. The natural source of programmers was the pool of plugboard wirers who understood the existing applications and their PCAM process, and understood their old machines and were not in awe of their new ones.

An interesting study of "business-oriented" first-generation computers and their programming would look at USAF Air Materiel Command, headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton. AMC was probably the biggest single user of first-generation computers in the U.S. Their larger depots used large-scale IBM 702s and 705s. Smaller depots used IBM 650/RAMACs, which were complex configurations for their time. The depots were staffed mostly by civilians who, I assume, fit the profile of "business-oriented" programmers I described.

Ben Schwartz, Brooklyn, NY, USA

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Author's response:

Thanks to Ben Schwartz for pointing out IBM GUIDE and COMMON to fill out "business-oriented" users. Additional diverse user groups would enrich our understanding. I now believe researchers should sum gender probabilities and not merely tally men's and women's names, since names change gender. See names in Mattauch et al.1: 'Johnnie' born in 1925 has 0.39 probability of being female; but 0.17 if born in 1975 (Social Security Administration data). Same years, 'Leslie' switches from p (F)=0.08 to 0.86. There are plenty of accomplished computer science Leslie's, both genders, that should be accurately identified.

Thomas J. Misa, Lopez Island, WA, USA

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Keying Users

As a UX professional, I read the article "AZERTY amélioré: Computational Design on a National Scale" (Communications, Feb. 2021) with interest. I compliment the authors on thorough research and excellent use of graphics and summaries in the article. The authors focus on translating goals such as "facilitate typing and learning" into quantifiable objective functions. I miss objective information about how the redesign affected real users' performance and satisfaction. I would also have liked to know what the authors learned from usability tests of the keyboard, which are unavoidable in user-centered design. In my interpretation of user-centered design, users should not just be involved in a public comment phase but throughout development. I welcome algorithmic optimization of usability, but I recommend that algorithms never replace real user involvement.

Rolf Molich, Denmark

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Authors' response:

We agree that user involvement is important. As we describe, different stakeholders were involved in the design process, painstakingly and throughout. Moreover, rigorous empirical research is the very foundation of the models that our objective functions utilize. Keyboards are not traditionally evaluated in "usability tests," but in carefully controlled transcription tasks. Historically, predictions made by predictive models—such as the one that is the basis of our optimizer—have agreed very well with empirical measurements (see Zhai et al.2).

Antti Oulasvirta, on behalf of co-authors, Denmark

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Rewriting the Fine Print

As covered in many recent Communications articles and commentary, there has been much handwringing about recent ransomware attacks. The current solutions turn to sanctions, government-public partnerships, and the new defense agency—the Cyber Command. Lost in all this is the simplest, most effective defense—the EULA.

What is the EULA? It is the End User License Agreement we must accept when we install software. That "agreement" absolves the software creator of any liability for software errors and provides unlimited access to your information generated with the software.


There is no technology or consumer protection for stupidity or inattention.


Congress could eliminate the EULA providing instead consumer protection like those for medical equipment and automobiles. Those agreements say if these devices do not work, the manufacturer will recall them and make them work.

Think how much more bulletproof software would be if the engineers and managers of software companies were personally liable for the safety of their products. Sure the tech companies would whine about how much more expensive their products would be. Then think about how your personal identity and bank account would be protected without all the virus checkers and firewalls you have to buy to make up for the lack of safety in software.

BTW, there is no technology or consumer protection for stupidity or inattention. When you are lured by phishing to click on something that loads hacking software into your computer, it's on you. There could be however congressional protection from the spam email and phone calls we get.

Bert Laurence, Life Member of ACM Palo Alto, CA, USA

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Editor-in Chief's response:

Thanks for the observation, particularly timely as governments around the world are reconsidering what are appropriate responsibilities and regulations for "tech companies" both big and small.

Andrew A. Chien, Chicago, IL, USA

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References

1. Mattauch, S. et al. A bibliometric approach for detecting the gender gap in computer science. Commun. ACM 63, 5 (May 2020), 74–80; https://doi.org/10.1145/3376901

2. Zhai, S. et al. Performance optimization of virtual keyboards. Human-Computer Interaction 17, 2-3 (2002), 229–269.

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Footnotes

Communications welcomes your opinion. To submit a Letter to the Editor, please limit your comments to 500 words or less, and send to letters@cacm.acm.org


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