Judea Pearl, a big brain behind artificial intelligence, wins Turing Award

Judea Pearl, a longtime UCLA professor whose work on artificial intelligence laid the foundation for such inventions as the iPhone's Siri speech recognition technology and Google's driverless cars, has been named the 2011 ACM Turing Award winner.

The annual Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) A.M. Turing Award, sometimes called the "Nobel Prize in Computing," recognizes Pearl for his advances in probabilistic and causal reasoning. His work has enabled creation of thinking machines that can cope with uncertainty, making decisions even when answers aren't black or white.

BACKGROUND: Why there's no official Nobel Prize for Computing 

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The Turing award, in existence since 1966, comes with a $250,000 prize funded by Google and Intel. Last year's award went to Leslie Valiant, a Harvard University computer scientist. 

One past winner, Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf, says Pearl's accomplishments have "redefined the term 'thinking machine'" over the past 30 years. Pearl's efforts have had "a pervasive influence not only on machine learning but on natural language processing, computer vision, robotics, computational biology, econometrics, cognitive science and statistics," Cerf said in a statement.

The UCLA computer science professor is widely credited with coining the term "Bayesian Network," which refers to a statistical model ACM describes as mimicking "the neural activities of the human brain, constantly exchanging messages without benefit of a supervisor." Bayesian networks have been used to, among other things, analyze biological data for studies of medicine and diseases.

Pearl, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1936 and earned degrees from Technion in Israel, Rutgers University and Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, is considered a philosopher as well as a computer scientist. He has conducted research in recent years on computers and morality, an issue that becomes more relevant as interaction between humans and robots becomes more real (See "Georgia Tech researchers talking the talk with robots.")

Pearl joined UCLA in 1970, having worked previously for RCA Research Laboratories and at Electronic Memories, Inc. While at UCLA he has directed the school's Cognitive Systems Laboratory, written influential books such as Heuristics, Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems and Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference. Pearl continues to publish papers prolifically, largely focused on causality.

Pearl has also been a public figure in recent years as president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, formed after his son Daniel was killed by terrorists in 2002 while working for the Wall Street Journal as a journalist.

Pearl, whose hobbies include playing music and singing, has been honored by the industry and his peers many times. Last year he was inducted into the IEEE's AI Hall of Fame, and he received the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computers and Cognitive Science from the Franklin Institute in 2008.

ACM, a worldwide educational and scientific computing society, will present Pearl with his award on June 16 in San Francisco at its annual awards banquet. Fittingly, ACM will be celebrating the 100th birthday of Alan Turing at an event preceding the banquet.

Bob Brown tracks network research in his Alpha Doggs blog and Facebook page, as well on Twitter and Google +.

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