June 19, 2021


Melts In Your Technology

Two ex-Bell Labs scientists changed computer programming forever. Now, they’ll split a $1M prize.

A pair of pioneering computer scientists — who met at Princeton University and forged their friendship at the legendary Bell Labs in New Jersey — were named the winners of the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for computing Wednesday for helping revolutionize how the world interacts with computers.

Alfred Vaino Aho, now a professor emeritus at Columbia University, and Jeffrey David Ullman, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, were named the recipients of the A.M. Turing Award for their lifetime of work.

The award, considered the top prize in computing, comes with a $1 million check provided by Google, which the pair will split.

Aho, 79, and Ullman, 78, were honored for creating some the underlying algorithms and theories that made computer programming accessible to non experts. They wrote fundamental textbooks that are still sitting on the bookshelves of computer programmers today.

There probably isn’t a computer in your house that hasn’t been influenced by their work, experts say.

“Virtually every program running our world — from those on our phones or in our cars to programs running on giant server farms inside big web companies — is written by humans in a higher-level programming language and then compiled into lower-level code for execution. Much of the technology for doing this translation for modern programming languages owes its beginnings to Aho and Ullman,” the Association for Computing Machinery, which oversees the award, said in its announcement.

Aho was born in Canada and went to Princeton University in the 1960s for graduate school. It was there he met Ullman, who was also a graduate student studying the rapidly changing world of computers.

In 1967, the pair went to work at the Holmdel- and Murray Hill-based Bell Labs, the research hub credited with the development of the transistor, the laser and numerous computer languages. Though they eventually went to separate coasts to become university professors, they continued to collaborate for decades.

They did key work on the computer “compiler,” which translates the computer languages people use to program into something computers can understand. They also developed algorithms for analyzing and translating programming languages.

Alfred V. Aho

Alfred V. Aho, a Columbia University professor emeritus of computer science, has won the 2020 Turing Award, known informally as the “Nobel Prize of computing.” He is pictured with two of the “dragon” computer programming textbooks he co-authored. (Columbia University)

In the 1970s, they wrote textbooks on compiler design and computer algorithms that helped open up the new field of computer programming beyond highly-trained engineers and mathematicians. Their books were known as the “dragon books” because of the illustrated dragons on the covers.

Aho, who spent more than 30 years at Bell Labs, also helped head the research lab that invented the UNIX, C and C++ computer languages.

Both said they are honored to get the Turing award for their lifetime of work. The prize was unexpected, both said.

Jeffrey Ullman

Stanford University computer scientist Jeffrey Ullman is co-recipient of the 2020 Turing Award. (Stanford University School of Engineering)Stanford University School of Engineering

“What can I say? I can die happy,” Ullman said. “It’s something I was not expecting. The contributions that Al Aho and I made were not the kind that normally wins the Turing Award, but it is a great honor to be recognized in this way.”

Aho said he was happy to see the Association for Computing Machinery, which picks the winners every year, acknowledged the underlying research and work that changed how computers are programmed.

“I am honored and humbled to receive this prestigious award,” said Aho. ”I am delighted that with this award ACM recognizes the foundational importance of abstractions and algorithms in the design and implementation of programming languages.”

The A.M. Turing Award is named in honor of Alan Mathison Turing, the British mathematician and pioneering computer scientist who helped lead the effort to break the Enigma code during World War II.

Aho and Ullman’s Turing Award win comes two weeks after another scholar with ties to New Jersey won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics for his pioneering work with computers.

Avi Wigderson, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, was named the 2021 winner of the Abel Prize along with László Lovász, of Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary. The award from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters is considered the top yearly prize in math because the Nobel Prize does not have a mathematics category.

The pair’s work in theoretical mathematics and algorithms is also considered fundamental to how computers now work. Their Abel Prize comes with $7.5 million Norwegian kroner, worth about $880,000, which they will split.

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Kelly Heyboer may be reached at [email protected].