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Valiant Wins Turing Award, Nobel of Computer Science

By Patrick Galvin, Crimson Staff Writer

The Association for Computing Machinery awarded Professor Leslie G. Valiant of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences the Turing Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in computer science, for his research in the field of artificial intelligence last week.

Valiant’s research laid the theoretical ground for machine learning, according to several of his colleagues. His work has led to the technology for computer vision, natural language processing, and handwriting recognition in computers, among other advancements.

The Turing Award, often considered “the Nobel Prize of computing,” includes a $250,000 cash prize, partially funded by Google and Intel, according to ACM’s public relations manager Virginia Gold.

Shortly before ACM’s announcement last Thursday, Valiant’s research was already gaining recognition on television sets across the country.

Earlier this month, IBM’s Watson computer defeated two former champions of the “Jeopardy!” game show in a series of highly anticipated on-air rounds. Much of Valiant’s research in the 1980s was critical for the development of the computer, which has been seen as a milestone of artificial intelligence research.

“[Valiant] provided the theoretical basis for progress in artificial intelligence,” Gold said. “Those are the kinds of techniques that have enabled computing systems like Watson to rival humans abilities to answer questions—those kinds of things provided the groundwork for this machine.”

ACM said the Turing award is given to individuals whose contributions are of lasting and major importance to computer science.

“For the field of computing, [Valiant] provided a fundamental foundation for advances in machine learning,” Gold said. “I also think it’s great for Harvard. [The award] is in a competitive field, but it’s in a field that’s making huge strides.”

Harvard professor Michael D. Mitzenmacher said that he agreed that the award is beneficial for Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“I imagine and hope it will raise our visibility,” Mitzenmacher said. “It gives us something to show the rest of the world. [Valiant] has always been brilliant, so in some sense, nothing has actually changed. But it’s a nice sign of recognition for Harvard and SEAS as a whole.”

Valiant’s past accomplishments in mathematics and computing have also been awarded. He won the Nevanlinna Prize in 1986 for his mathematical advancements in the field of computer sciences; he also won the Knuth Prize in 1997 and the European Association for Theoretical Computer Science award in 2008.

“This is not the only thing he has done in his career,” Mitzenmacher said. “He has won many awards in the past and this is just the crowning award to a stellar career.”

Valiant could not be reached for comment.

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