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Why there's no Nobel Prize in Computing

Some refer to Turing Award, Marconi Prize, Draper Prize as de facto Nobels

By , Network World
June 06, 2011 06:07 AM ET

Network World - When Nobel Prizes are dished out each fall, the most accomplished professionals in computing, telecom and IT have usually been left out in the cold. That's because there is no Nobel Prize for these fields, and it's unlikely there will be one any time soon.


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According to the Nobel Foundation: "The Nobel Prizes, as designated in the Will of Alfred Nobel, are in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Only once has a prize been added - a Memorial Prize - The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, donated by Sweden's central bank to celebrate its tercentenary in 1968. The Nobel Foundation's Board of Directors later decided to keep the original five prizes intact and not to permit new additions."

The fact that Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, died in 1896 meant that the prizes were defined just a wee bit before the IT industry really exploded. After all, the Computer History Museum's official timeline doesn't even start until 1939. 

So, if IBM, Google, Apple or some other deep-pocketed tech company wanted to make a big donation along the lines of what Sweden's central bank did in 1968, maybe it could sway the Nobel Foundation to add a prize. But it most likely wouldn't be officially called a Nobel Prize.




Meanwhile, IT/computing/telecom innovators haven't been completely ignored by the Nobel Foundation. The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2009, for example, went in part to Charles Kuen Kao, sometimes called the Father of Fiber-optic Communications.

Without an official Nobel Prize in Computing, the IT industry is left with de facto Nobel Prizes in computing and communications and engineering , such as the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM) A.M. Turing Award , the National Academy of Engineering's Charles Stark Draper Prize and the Marconi Society's Marconi Prize. All of these organizations are known to refer to their awards as "the Nobel Prize in..." and are more than happy to have others refer to their prizes that way, too. Though the ACM and Marconi Society acknowledge they'd prefer to see an actual Nobel Prize devoted to computing and/or communications.

In fact, the ACM reportedly approached the Nobel Foundation with an offer to bankroll such a prize, but was turned down.

"I would certainly like to see [a Nobel Prize in Computing]. I'd love to have something that the public recognizes," says Jim Horning, an accomplished computer scientist who is co-chair of the ACM's Awards Committee. "We think the quality of our award is comparable, but the word 'Nobel' adds its own cachet."

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The 2010 A.M. Turing Award, which comes with a $250,000 prize, went to Leslie Valiant, a versatile Harvard University computer scientist whose work has influenced everything from artificial intelligence to distributed computing. 

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