Computing Applications Viewpoint

What It Means to Receive the Turing Award

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ACM A.M. Turing Award recipients
Turing laureates at the ACM press conference (front row, from left): Silvio Micali (2012), Michael O. Rabin (1976), Edmund M. Clarke (2007). Back row, from left: Joseph Sifakis (2007), Barbara Liskov (2008), Butler W. Lampson (1992), Robert Tarjan (1986).

ACM held a press conference on Nov. 13, 2014 to announce Google’s $1 million funding of the ACM A.M. Turing Award (see p. 31). In attendance were seven Turing laureates: Michael Rabin, Robert Tarjan, Butler Lampson, Edmund Clarke, Joseph Sifakis, Barbara Liskov, and Silvio Micali. At the event, Micali was asked to share what it means to receive the Turing Award. Here are his comments.

I’ll be brief.

As we enter life, we all struggle to understand the world. Some of us continue this struggle with dogged determination. These are the scientists. Some of them realize that computation provides a privileged perspective to understand the world outside and the one within. These are the computer scientists. To some of them, once a year, the ACM confers the Turing Award.

The end.

It is wonderful that six Turing awardees could attend this event. Personally, I am particularly happy, because they are not only my role models and my mentors, but my friends as well. On behalf of this uniquely distinguished group, I wish to share with you my view on what it means to receive the Turing Award.

Let me start by saying that the Turing Award gives us a unique opportunity to become ambassadors of our wonderful field. Within our computer science community, everyone always knew they could go to Michael, Bob, Butler, Ed, Joseph, and Barbara for an idea, a suggestion, or an opinion. But the Turing Award increases our outside visibility and enables us to build bridges to other disciplines. There is already a vibrant cooperation between computer science and mathematics, economics, quantum physics, and biology. But it is becoming clear that computation underlies many more fields, and it is a duty and a privilege for a Turing Award winner to provide an initial point of contact and to facilitate joint exploration with other fields.

My second meaning is more personal. But since the more personal we get the more universal we become, I suspect that my friends also share this meaning. As scientists, we strive not only for utmost innovation and but also for broadest recognition. Strife for innovation is certainly good, but so is strife for recognition: the world would be extremely dangerous if scientists no longer craved social approval! Innovation and recognition, however, can be antagonistic forces. The safest way to gather broad approval is to advance an already accepted research direction. It is thus a crucial role of the Turing Award to strike a better balance between these two innate forces, and give a louder voice to “the better angels of our nature.” Each and every one of my friends here has earned the Turing Award by going against the then prevailing wisdom, by treading where everyone else feared to go, by rolling a bright red carpet on what used to be a dangerous pass. Since March 2013, by satisfying my need for recognition (temporarily!), the Turing Award has spurred me to take on additional scientific risk. A few months ago, my colleague Nir Shavit proposed that we have a look at computational neurobiology. I was two-minded about his proposal. On one hand, I knew absolutely nothing about neurobiology. On the other, I absolutely knew that of course computation does help it. (a) Risky, (b) Tempting… What might I have answered just two years before? Who knows? I answered Yes. I am glad I did.

Finally, after the interdisciplinary and the personal, I wish to point out the third and most important significance of receiving the Turing Award: encouraging our own discipline. The impact of computer science on human history may only be comparable to that of the “invention of fire.” Instantaneous communication and our ability of analyzing and sharing enormous amounts of data are all children of the computer. Our cars, jet planes, and all our sophisticated appliances are sophisticated because they have computers on board. Science is more and more computation-based. Our generation did well. But the next one is called to do much better. For, it is no longer the point of revolutionizing and improving the way we live: our very survival as a species will depend on our ability to advance computation. To each generation its own challenge. Fortunately, we are surrounded by enormously talented young people. Yet, the tasks before them are so daunting that they might be tempted to unleash their tremendous potential onto lesser and easier targets. It is our responsibility to encourage them to take the harder road; to reassure them they have the hearts and the minds to prevail.

So, after this wonderful celebration, let’s go home and encourage our young scientists. Let’s tell them you are NOT alone. WE are with you. THE ENTIRE FIELD is with you. YOU WILL WIN. And when you do, wherever we might be, we shall share your pleasure.

Long Live Computer Science!

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UF1 Figure. Turing laureates at the ACM press conference (front row, from left): Silvio Micali (2012), Michael O. Rabin (1976), Edmund M. Clarke (2007). Back row, from left: Joseph Sifakis (2007), Barbara Liskov (2008), Butler W. Lampson (1992), Robert Tarjan (1986).

UF2 Figure. “The Turing Award gives us a unique opportunity to become ambassadors of our wonderful field,” said Silvio Micali at the ACM press conference on November 13.

UF3 Figure. Seven Turing laureates participated in ACM’s announcement of Google’s $1 million funding of the Turing Award.

UF4 Figure. New York Times reporter Steve Lohr (left) with Turing laureates Butler Lampson and Barbara Liskov.

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