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Judea Pearl named 2011 winner of Turing Award

UCLA professor cited for pioneering work in extending our understanding of artificial intelligence

Judea Pearl ACM

Judea Pearl is the winner of the prestigious Turing Award for his pioneering work in the field of artificial intelligence.

In becoming the 35th person to win the prestigious $250,000 award from the Association for Computing Machinery, the 75-year-old Pearl was honored with what is considered to be the highest prize that the computing industry has to offer.

"Of course, I'm delighted that people in your field and outside appreciate what you did, that recognize the work that I do in my little niche," Pearl said in an interview. "It's very rewarding."

List of published papers by Judah Pearl

A professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, Pearl is recognized as a leading thinker in the study of machine reasoning. Pearl has often been cited for his work in the relationship between cause and effect. Among other things, he's credited with coming up with a way to use Bayesian networks to research machine learning. This modeling tool, named after a famous 18th century English mathematician, was cited as offering a "critical step toward achieving human-level AI that can interact with the physical world. Pearl was also recognized for earlier work in a method of problem-solving known as heuristic search as well as for his contributions in the field of causality.

Vint Cerf, who chairs ACM's Turing centenary celebration, lauded Pearl's impact, saying his research had had influences in related realms including natural language processing, computer vision, robotics, computational biology, econometrics, cognitive science, and statistics. "His accomplishments over the last 30 years have provided the theoretical basis for progress in artificial intelligence and led to extraordinary achievements in machine learning, and they have redefined the term 'thinking machine,'" according to Cerf.

A couple of side footnotes to the award. Pearl is the father of former Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and slain in 2002 by al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan.

Also, Alan M. Turing's 100th anniversary is slated be celebrated this June. Turing was one of the seminal thinkers in the history of modern computing.

Pearl, who said he first got interested in how to handle uncertainty in computer systems early in his college days, offered a guardedly optimistic prediction of where current research is likely pointing.

"I don't see any basic impediments to intelligence on machines," he said. "I think eventually we will have automatic systems that can put together experimental data from thousands of different sources conclusions and come up with recommendations and justifications." "Anything that that had something to do with uncertainly, if you frame it, you get a plausible answer," Pearl added. "You don't have surprises. The only question has been computation, how to implement it correctly on a computer."

Pearl will receive the Turing Award on June 16 in San Francisco during the annual ACM banquet.