Turing Award for Computer Scientists: More Inclusiveness Needed

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By: Chai K Toh

THE INSTITUTE This is an edited guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent the position of IEEE or The Institute.

Alan Turing was a famous British computer science pioneer who is widely recognized as the founder and father of computer science. The significance of his work has been undeniable, but Turing himself did not receive a Nobel Prize for his contributions. An alumnus of King’s College in Cambridge, U.K., Turing has been a source of inspiration and admiration for many computer scientists, including myself.

EARLY WINNERS

As a computer scientist, I have been curious about the winners of Turing Award and where they came from. Maurice Wilkes, a Cambridge professor and computer engineer, received the award in 1967 for creating EDSAC [electronic delay storage automatic calculator], the first stored program computer. Thirteen years later, in 1980, Oxford University’s professor emeritus Sir Charles Antony Hoare won the prize. And in 1991, my former department chairman at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory, Professor Robin Milner, was a recipient. However, most of the winners are from the United States. A list of all winners since 1966 can be found here.

THE PRIZE

The Association for Computing Machinery established its Turing Award in 1966 to recognize “an individual who has made lasting technical contributions to computing.” ACM is an American computing association, not British. The Turing Award is considered to be the highest distinction in computer science and its stature has grown to be considered the equivalent of a Nobel Prize.

Turing Award winners, who receive a prize of US $1 million, are considered giants in their fields who have made significant impact to the field and to society. But the candidate first has to be nominated and hence one social’s network and support play an important part.

TIME COUNTS

The average age of the award winners from the last decade is 65.5, near the retirement age for most university professors [see table below]. This phenomenon conveys a clear message. It takes time to receive the award and one should not expect to be able to get this award at a young age.

Turing Award Winner Age at time of Award Workplace at time of Award Award Year
Pat Hanrahan 65 University 2019
Edwin Catmull 74 Industry 2019
Yann LeCun 58 University 2018
Geoffrey Hinton 71 Industry 2018
Yoshua Bengio 54 University 2018
John L. Hennessy 65 University 2017
David Patterson 70 University 2017
Tim Berners-Lee 61 University 2016
Martin Hellman 70 University 2015
Whitfield Diffie 71 Industry 2015
Michael Stonebraker 69 Industry 2014
Leslie Lamport 72 Industry 2013
Shafi Goldwasser 54 University 2012
Silvio Micali 58 University 2012
Judea Pearl 75 University 2011
Leslie Valiant 61 University 2010
Charles P. Thacker 66 Industry 2009
Average Age = 65.5 years old

Readers may wonder why it takes so long to be recognized for a Turing Award. That is because the impact of inventions and breakthroughs take time to be recognized. Some inventions are way ahead of their time, for example, Vinton Cerf’s Internet protocols and Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web. It also takes time for people to appreciate and understand the technology. And it takes even more time for the new technology to be realized into usable products that can benefit billions of people.

LACK OF DIVERSITY

From the complete list of past winners, one can observe the lack of ethnic diversity. Few winners are Asians and no recipients are of African or Hispanic descent. Most of the winners are male and they are from university rather than industry. Geographically, most winners are from the United States.

This immediately aroused my curiosity. Does this mean that computer scientists from other countries are less capable in the field of computer science than those in the United States? Why are there no winners from countries such as Brazil and Japan? And why are there so few female winners? Although we are seeking more diversity in winners, one should never compromise or lower the standards required to win the award. 

Since the Turing Award is an international award, candidates from around the globe are eligible. In addition to the candidates themselves, the Turing Award selection committee too must be ethnically, gender, and geographically diverse, with representations from both industry and university. Since there are fewer winners from industry than university, perhaps it is time for the Turing Award committee to engage more with industry and solicit more nominations from it. 

Finally, for those aspiring to be future Turing Award recipients, it is worthwhile to understand the selection criteria and read the profiles of past winners, such as their background, work, achievements, and to recognize the fact that a time period is needed to reach a substantial impact to the field and society. 

IEEE Fellow Chai K. Toh is an honor chair professor of electrical engineering and computer science at National Tsing Hua University, in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

He would like to thank Vint CerfBjarne Stroustrup and David Cleevely for their insightful feedback and comments. The views expressed here are solely from the author and do not represent those from any organizations mentioned herein.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 02 November 2020.