Harvard computer scientist Leslie Valiant wins Turing Award

'Nobel Prize in Computing' recognizes Valiant's contributions to artificial intelligence, machine learning, parallel computing

Leslie Valiant, a versatile computer scientist at Harvard University whose work has impacted everything from artificial intelligence to distributed computing, has been named the winner of the 2010 A.M. Turing Award.

The annual Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) award, sometimes called the "Nobel Prize in Computing," recognizes Valiant for his broad contributions to computational learning theory and computer science. The award comes with a $250,000 prize funded by Google and Intel.

"Leslie Valiant's accomplishments over the last 30 years have provided the theoretical basis for progress in artificial intelligence and led to extraordinary achievements in machine learning. His work has produced modeling that offers computationally inspired answers on fundamental questions like how the brain 'computes,'" ACM President Alain Chesnais said in a statement. "His profound vision in computer science, mathematics, and cognitive theory have been combined with other techniques to build modern forms of machine learning and communication, like IBM's [Jeopardy! champion] 'Watson' computing system, that have enabled computing systems to rival a human's ability to answer questions."

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Valiant's influential works include a paper titled "Theory of the Learnable" that is considered a seminal source on machine learning. 

Jon Kleinberg, a computer science professor at Cornell University, said Valiant's work in machine learning, in which you create algorithms that improve their performance through use instead of hard coded rules, laid the scientific foundation for technologies such as intrusion detection systems and spam filters.

Valiant winning the award is "a great story about how theoretical work can help frame the way people think about [assorted computing] problems, which in turn leads to novel solutions in a whole range of applications," Kleinberg says.

The Harvard professor's work also led to advances in areas such as natural language processing, handwriting recognition and computer vision, according to the ACM.

Another Valiant paper, "A Scheme for Fast Parallel Communication," addresses parallel processing and distributed computing challenges. 

"If you use a highly synchronized approach to moving your data then there's something in the nature of structure and movement patterns that creates hotspots when everyone tries to go through a single central point," Kleinberg says ."One of [Valiant's] contributions that has become a paradigm used in many contexts is that randomization can help smooth out congestion."

Of late, Valiant has focused on computational neuroscience and has published a book called "Circuits of the Mind" that takes a computational approach to studying how the human brain works.

Before joining Harvard in 1982, Valiant taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Leeds University and the University of Edinburgh.

Other recent Turing Award winners have been MIT Professor Barbara Liskov, recognized for object-oriented programming techniques crucial to programming languages such as Java and C++, and Microsoft researcher Charles Thacker, who won last year for his work in pioneering the networked personal computer.

The full list of winners for the Turing Award, which goes back to 1966, can be found here.

The ACM dishes out its awards at a banquet on June 4 in San Jose.

For more on network research, follow our Alpha Doggs blog.

Follow Bob Brown on his non-award winning Twitter account at www.twitter.com/alphadoggs.

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