Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Why is called the Turing Award (revisited)?

Avi Wigderson gave his ACM Turing Award lecture last week, and instead of telling his own story, he focused on Alan Turing and his influence on complexity. If you didn't see it live, you can watch on YouTube or below.

I want to revisit a post I wrote for the Turing centenary in 2012 asking why the prize is named after Turing. Since that post, Turing has become even more popular, especially through the 2014 movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I caught this picture of Turing as a legend in the Chicago Pride Parade last Sunday.

But Turing was not always a legend. The first Turing award was awarded to Alan Perlis in 1966. Turing's work during World War II remained classified until the 1970s and wasn't widely known until the 80's. Alan Turing's homosexuality would have granted him no favors in the mid-60s. 

When I gave a talk celebrating Juris Hartmanis, I posited that Juris not only received the Turing award but may have been the reason the award has its name. The Hartmanis-Stearns paper, as Avi also noted, established the Turing machine as the right model for studying computational complexity, as the model easily capture time and space (memory). That paper was published in 1965, fresh in the minds of those at the ACM creating the award. Perhaps combined with the early days of AI and Turing's intelligence paper, may have been enough to decide to name the award for Turing. 

Today there is no question that ACM made the right move in naming the award for Turing. Just watch Avi show that Turing's influence on complexity justifies the award's name on its own.

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