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Professor gets computing’s ‘Nobel’

Harvard’s Leslie Valiant wins A.M. Turing Award

Valiant: an artificial intelligence pioneer. Valiant: an artificial intelligence pioneer.
By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / March 9, 2011

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Harvard University professor Leslie G. Valiant, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, has been awarded the 2010 A.M. Turing Award, the most prestigious prize in the field of computer science. Valiant’s research into processes to make computers reason as humans do laid the groundwork for applications ranging from e-mail spam filters to IBM’s Watson computer system, which last month bested human competitors on the game show “Jeopardy!’’

Known in computing circles as the “Nobel Prize in Computing,’’ the award is bestowed by a scientific society, the Association for Computing Machinery, and includes a $250,000 cash prize funded by Intel Corp. and Google Inc.

The prize is named for Alan Turing, a British mathematician and code breaker during World War II who is known as a father of modern computer science.

“This connection with the achievements of the previous winners, and of Turing himself, is more than anyone in my field can reasonably expect,’’ Valiant wrote in an e-mail.

He will receive the award on June 4, at the association’s annual awards banquet in San Jose, Calif.

“I think Les Valiant’s award is one of the strongest Turing Awards ever,’’ said Jennifer Chayes, a member of the selection committee and the managing director of Microsoft Research New England. “His work is absolutely amazing.’’

As an example, Chayes cited Valiant’s 1984 paper “A Theory of the Learnable’’ as a landmark in the field, saying it led to the processes that allow computers to discern which e-mail messages are viewed as annoying, and which Web search results are most relevant.

“All of the personalization that we are seeing is due to the computer learning from what you did, and trying to find patterns in what you did,’’ Chayes said. “That is absolutely an application of his research.’’

Valiant’s work has “an adventurous aspect,’’ said Jon Kleinberg, a Cornell University computer science professor who endorsed the Harvard professor’s nomination for the award.

“He takes on questions that are fundamental, but very hard to attack, like how do intelligent agents learn? Or how does the brain compute?’’ Kleinberg said.

The science of machine learning, the type of artificial intelligence work Valiant helped to pioneer, develops the tools by which computers can solve problems on their own rather than rely on preprogrammed answers, Kleinberg explained. One real-world application is speech-recognition software, he added.

“Machine learning has allowed computers to display that same level of subtlety and complexity, the way that humans do when they solve problems,’’ Kleinberg said. “You pick up the phone and call an airline, it’s almost impossible to get a human being. You’re talking to computers.’’

Valiant’s win brings the prize to Cambridge for the second time in three years. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, Barbara Liskov, won in 2008. She was recognized for the development of object-oriented programming, a method used to write most of the software programs that power personal computers and the Internet.

Calvin Hennick can be reached at calvinhennick@yahoo.com.