Google to Quadruple Computer Science Prize Winnings to $1 Million

The A.M. Turing Award is often called the Nobel Prize of computer science. Now, thanks to Google’s largess, it will be a Nobel-level prize financially: $1 million.

The quadrupling of the prize money, announced on Thursday by the Association for Computing Machinery, the professional organization that administers the award, is intended to elevate the prominence and recognition of computer science. The move can be seen as another sign of the boom times in technology.

Computing is increasingly an ingredient in every field, from biology to business. College students, encouraged by their parents, are rushing to take computer science courses. It’s not just a skill but a mind-set. Computational thinking is the future, where the excitement and money is. Quants rule.

But the Turing Award celebrates the slower and deeper side of computing. It is given, said Alexander L. Wolf, president of the association and a professor of computer science at Imperial College London, to the “true pioneers” who are “fundamental contributors to the science and technology of computing.”

Previous recipients have not been household names, except in very geeky households. They did not make fortunes, but they created the underlying insights in mathematics, and in software and hardware design, that helped make personal computers, the Internet, online commerce, social networks and smartphones a reality.

Yet computer science is also a practical, problem-solving discipline.

At the announcement event on Thursday morning in New York, Stuart Feldman, vice president for engineering at Google, said he had been impressed by the blend of the theoretical and practical sides of computing in reading over the Turing Award citations since 1966. The prize, he said, recognizes both “the finest of thought and the broadest of impact.”

The Turing Award had carried prize money of $250,000 and was jointly underwritten by Google and Intel since 2007. But Intel decided to step away as a funder, and Google stepped up and upped the ante. The million-dollar award essentially matches the Nobel Prize’s eight million Swedish kronor, which is a bit more than $1 million at current exchange rates.

Increasing the financial reward, Mr. Feldman said, lifts the Turing Award into the “major league of scientific prizes.”

For Google, being the deep-pocketed benefactor of the Turing Award is both good branding and a public statement that it takes fundamental research seriously.

“Computing is our lifeblood,” Mr. Feldman said. The company, he added, hopes that increasing the prize money will give greater public prominence and recognition to the importance of computer science.

Silvio Micali, one of the handful of Turing winners in attendance, spoke of the spread of computer science into other disciplines. By now, Mr. Micali said, computing is well established in the sciences. But the importance of computing and its reach, he said, is destined to accelerate further across the economy and society.

Mr. Micali, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who won the 2012 prize, urged young computer scientists to go deep and take on big challenges instead of focusing on “lesser and easier targets” with quicker payoffs.

The patient pursuit of computing research can seem out of step at a time when even many undergraduate computer science students drop out of school to join start-ups. When asked about that, Mr. Wolf said both the creation and the commercialization of technology are needed. “Some people invent the foundations on which others can build,” he said, “and others — some of them dropouts — are those that make these technologies massively available to people and society.”

Google itself reflects that combination. Its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were both Ph.D. candidates in computer science at Stanford when they created the concepts behind Google search technology.

The legacy of Alan Turing is certainly getting a boost this month, and not just from more money for his namesake award. Next comes the release (on Friday in Britain, and later this month in the United States) of “The Imitation Game,” a movie version of Turing’s life, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the English polymath and Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke, a friend and fellow code-breaker at Bletchley Park, where German World War II codes were successfully deciphered.

There is also the reissue in paperback of “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” a biography of the man known as the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. The book, written by Andrew Hodges, was originally published in 1983. The new version carries the additional subtitle, “The Book That Inspired the Film, The Imitation Game.”

Past Turing winners, though, will not be getting a felicitous bump. The enriched prizes will not be retroactive.

“I just asked,” Butler W. Lampson joked at the announcement event in New York. Mr. Lampson was a leader in the 1970s at Xerox PARC, where so much of the underlying technology of personal computing, adopted by Apple and Microsoft, was built.

For that work, Mr. Lampson won a Turing Award in 1992. Today, Mr. Lampson is a scientist in Microsoft’s research labs and an adjunct professor at M.I.T. Envious of the paychecks for future winners? “Oh, I’ll get by,” he replied, smiling.

by Steve Lohr
Source – NYT-Bits