Judea PearlJudea Pearl, professor of computer science at UCLA, is the winner of the 2011 Association for Computing Machinery A.M. Turing Award for his work in artificial intelligence. The year 2012 also marks what would have been the 100th birthday of British mathematician Alan M. Turing, an event that will be celebrated in June as part of the 2011 award presentation.  

Pearl’s projects include developments in probabilistic and causal reasoning and their application to a broad range of problems, which he said is now an inference formula used in many different computing systems in a variety of industries. His prize includes a US$250,000 gift, with financial support provided by Google and Intel.

Pearl said that humans have a way of understanding that if there is smoke, there’s probably fire, and that is something that he worked on creating as a formula for computing systems. He said this standard method for handling uncertainty in computer systems can be used in any system where there is a lot of “noisy” data that needs to be evaluated.

Additionally, Pearl, 75, who lives in Los Angeles, developed “graphical methods and symbolic calculus that enable machines to reason about actions and observations, and to assess cause-and-effect relationships from empirical findings,” according to the ACM. Pearl said these relationships are now being transferred to robots so that they can understand and take blame or credit for their actions.

He said this could be used for a robot performing any number of human tasks, and gave an example of a robot playing a soccer game. If one robot, he said, told another robot that the team lost the game because of it, the second robot should be able to understand and say something to the effect of “I’ll do better next time” instead of simply saying “I was programmed that way.”

“Like Alan Turing himself, Pearl turned his thinking to constructing procedures that might be harnessed to perform tasks traditionally associated with human intelligence,” said Vint Cerf, chair of the ACM 2012 Turing Centenary Celebration and a former ACM Turing Award recipient, in a statement about the announcement.

Pearl said his Bayesian Network, which established a dialogue between humans and machines, is one of his most memorable pieces of work. The network is a theoretical foundation for reasoning under uncertainty. Pearl coined the term in 1985 after the 18th-century mathematician Thomas Bayes. This is a general and flexible modeling tool that mimics the neural activities of the human brain and constantly exchanges messages without a supervisor. Pearl said he created the concepts and allowed others to program the ideas into systems.

Alfred Spector, a Google research vice president, said modern AI applications like robotics, self-driving cars, speech recognition and machine translation deal with uncertainty, and Pearl has been instrumental in supplying the rationale and technology for these applications to flourish, according to the ACM.