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Turing Award Winners Panel Discussion

04/12/2011 10:50 AM Kresge
Fernando Corbato, Professor Emeritus, MIT; Butler Lampson, Adjunct Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT; Technical Fellow, Microsoft; Barbara Liskov, Institute Professor and Associate Provost for Faculty Equity, MIT; ; Ronald L. Rivest, Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS); Andrew Yao, Professor and Director of the Institute for Theoretical Computer Science (ITCS), Tsinghua University, Beijing, China; Steve Ward

Description: Winners of the A.M.Turing Award, the Nobel Prize of computing, describe their singular contributions to the field, and their works' impact. They also find time to discuss the current and future state of computer science.

Moderator Stephen Ward starts with 1990 prize winner Fernando Corbato, who remembers MIT's 100th birthday celebration. Corbato pioneered the idea of timesharing, and notes "how frozen the attitude of industrialists and computer manufacturers were." They resisted the idea of timesharing, not understanding "why they needed to change anything." The ultimate goal of his work, says Corbato, was "man"machine interaction." His achievements led to Unix and C programming language and "are being rediscovered today in cloud computing."

1992 award winner Butler Lampson describes the nearly free rein Xerox gave him and colleagues at PARC starting in 1970, which led to the first personal computer, a series of LISP machines, and other revolutionary technologies that developed into "pretty much all the things you're now accustomed to in the world of personal computing," he says. The only vision Lampson was unable to explore was the web, and that was "because we didn't have a big enough sandbox to play in."

Andrew Chi"Chih Yao earned his 2000 Turing for the complexity"based theory of pseudorandom number generation, cryptography and communication complexity. Yao attributes his successes in part to the times (late '70s), when it became apparent that public key cryptography would herald big networks, electronic commerce and the need for cryptography. He also notes that a group of researchers were "trying to break away from Claude Shannon" and "embraced computational complexity as our savior." It should come as no surprise, given these trends, says Yao, "those of us lucky enough in those days to be thinking about these issues would come up with concepts that would become very important."

Inspired by a paper in public key cryptography, Ronald Rivest and MIT colleagues came up with an algorithm known as the RSA scheme, based on the difficulty of factoring two large prime numbers, launching a new era for cryptography (and garnering the 2002 Turing Award). This field achieved "paradoxical things," says Rivest. "The character that cryptography can have is that you can ask something that seems like you shouldn't be able to do it, and yet you can in the end."

The panel's youngest Turing winner (2008), Barbara Liskov, recounts the "wonderful 'Aha' moment few people are lucky enough to have," when she came up with a new conceptual framework for computer programming languages. Her 1972 breakthrough involved a "big black box" concealing complicated data structures and code, which was manipulated by means of carefully defined operations. Relating "this multioperation module to data types" was the start of object"oriented programming. After spending several years "figuring out what this idea really meant," Liskov "switched to distributed systems," where she saw other "really important problems." These eminent scientists recognize today's breakthrough work -- Corbato cites Google, for instance -- but they don't embrace social networking. Liskov has neither a Facebook nor Twitter account, because she is "not interested in that kind of exposure," which she perceives as dangerous. Rivest admits to logging into Twitter "once a decade."

In a final 'lightning' round on important computer science problems, Yao recommends "brilliant" students work on "factoring of large integers by classical means;" Lampson suggests cyber physical systems; and Liskov points to computational biology.

About the Speaker(s): Stephen Ward earned his undergraduate and masters degrees in electrical engineering and a PhD in computer science, all from MIT. His recent teaching and research activities have been in the areas of computer system architecture.

Ward's research projects have had frequent and widespread practical impact: the 1979 Nu machine became a model for microprocessor"based workstations; its seminal UNIX port and system software is the progenitor of numerous software products; and the NuBus has become an industry standard.

Ward's inventions include a novel dynamic memory chip architecture and a real"time controller design. His publications span hardware and software issues, including formal models of system communications, real"time oriented compiler technology, multiprocessor system architecture, and bus"level communication technology. He is currently involved in the Curl project which aims to formulate a single, integrated authoring environment for the Web.

Host(s): Office of the President, MIT150 Inventional Wisdom

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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