Leslie G. Valiant of Harvard University today has been named the recipient of the 2010 Turing Award, presented annually by the Association for Computing Machinery, for his foundational work in the area of artificial intelligence, which has made machines like IBM’s “Jeopardy”-winning Watson possible.

Valiant was cited for his “fundamental contributions to the development of computational learning theory and to the broader theory of computer science,” according to the announcement by the ACM. Jon Kleinberg of Cornell University, who won the 2008 ACM-Infosys Foundation Award for his revolutionary advances in Web search techniques, endorsed Valiant for the Turing Award.

“Valiant’s work has been more general and broad-ranging, creating a paradigm for computer learning as well as a theory for counting complex problems in which there are many possibilities, and research in parallel computing,” Kleinberg said.

He added that Valiant’s research on how the brain learns allowed for the foundations to be created to teach computers how to learn, such as in the area of voice recognition. For example, if a program needs to learn how to understand a variety of voice pitches, accents and audio levels, it is easier to allow the computer program to adapt to changes—or learn additional combinations—based on the combinations provided in the initial coding phase. This paradigm is what Valiant laid the foundation for with his research in the 1980s, as Kleinberg explained.

“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,” said ACM president Alain Chesnais. “His work has produced modeling that offers computationally inspired answers on fundamental questions like how the brain ‘computes.’ ”

Valiant’s work has contributed to the creation of systems like IBM’s Watson and other computers that are capable of learning, Chesnais continued.

“Google joins in recognizing Leslie Valiant for his profound impact on the computer science research landscape,” said Alfred Spector, vice president of research and special initiatives at Google.

“His ingenious concepts and brilliant research have had incredible breadth, and he has both made and inspired innovations in the field of machine learning, an area of growing importance in many uses of computing,” Spector said.

Past accomplishments
Valiant is being honored for his contributions to Computational Learning Theory, Algebraic Computation Theory and Development of Models for Parallel Computing, according to the ACM.

Most recently, Valiant’s research has focused on “computational neuroscience, offering a concrete model of the brain and relating its architecture to complex cognitive functions,” according to the ACM.

He currently serves as the T. Jefferson Coolidge Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a position he has held since 1982. Prior to this, he held positions at Carnegie Mellon University, Leeds University and the University of Edinburgh. He is a graduate of Kings College, University of Cambridge, Imperial College and University of Warwick.

Valiant also has won the Nevanlinna Prize from the International Mathematical Union in 1986, the Knuth Prize from the ACM Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computation Theory and the IEEE Technical Committee on the Mathematical Foundations of Computing in 1997, and the European Association of Theoretical Computer Science Award in 2008. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, and a member of the USA National Academy of Sciences.

The Turing award is named for British mathematician Alan M. Turing. It also grants the recipient a US$250,000 prize with financial support provided by Google and Intel. The award will be presented to Valiant at the annual ACM awards banquet on June 4 in San Jose.

The Turing Award has been honoring professionals since its inception in 1966. Past recipients include Charles Thacker in 2009.

Other past recipients: Vinton Cerf and Robert E. Kahn (2004); Peter Naur (2005); Frances E. Allen (2006); Edmund M. Clark, E. Allen Emerson and Joseph Sifakis (2007); and Barbara Liskov (2008)