This year’s Turing Award has gone to two men who helped create the foundation on which modern software is built.
Jeffrey Ullman and Alfred Aho first met when doing their PhDs at Princeton University in the early 1960s; a time when computing machines were devices operated and programmed by a relatively small group of mathematicians and specialists.
But thanks to their pioneering work that began at Bell Labs in 1967 and went on for several decades, they managed to open up computers to a vast array of people who began to write software that now powers just about everything we equate with the modern world.
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The big leap was the creation of compilers that take programs written in a human-friendly high-level language and turn them into machine-readable instructions. If something today runs on electricity and does something computational, Ullman and Aho probably helped make it happen due to their foundational work on compiler technology.
They did much else besides technical contributions: they wrote and have repeatedly updated critical textbooks (nine of them) on programming language and algorithm design.
The Design and Analysis of Computer Algorithms, originally published in 1974, is considered a classic and became a standard textbook for algorithms courses in the early days of computer science. And Principles of Compiler Design (1977) is still being used and updated today with the most recent version published in 2007. Its cover design has led to it being known as the “Dragon Book.” It remains the standard textbook on compiler design.
And if you've ever used Awk, know that Aho created that with Peter Weinberger and Brian Kernighan in 1977.
Both Ullman and Aho have received numerous awards and honors for their work, and can now add the Turing Award to their CV. Here’s how the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), which runs the award, this week described their contribution:
“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.”
Words of praise
ACM’s president Gabriele Kotsis also had some glowing words for them: “While countless researchers and practitioners have contributed to these technologies [programming and advanced software], the work of Aho and Ullman has been especially influential. They have helped us to understand the theoretical foundations of algorithms and to chart the course for research and practice in compilers and programming language design. Aho and Ullman have been thought leaders since the early 1970s, and their work has guided generations of programmers and researchers up to the present day.”
They also got the thumbs up from someone at today's cutting edge: Google’s artificial intelligence senior veep Jeff Dean.
“Aho and Ullman established bedrock ideas about algorithms, formal languages, compilers and databases, which were instrumental in the development of today’s programming and software landscape,” he said. “They have also illustrated how these various disciplines are closely interconnected. Aho and Ullman introduced key technical concepts, including specific algorithms, that have been essential. In terms of computer science education, their textbooks have been the gold standard for training students, researchers, and practitioners.”
Now in their late 70s, they are still teaching and writing in the United States. Dr Aho is the Lawrence Gussman Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Columbia University and Dr Ullman is the Stanford W. Ascherman Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Stanford University. They will split the prize money of $1m. ®