When Alfred Aho and Jeffrey Ullman met while waiting in the registration line for the first day of their graduate studies at Princeton University in 1963, computing was yet a strange new world.
Using a computer required a set of esoteric skills usually reserved for engineers and trained mathematicians. But today, thanks in part to the work of Dr Aho and Dr Ullman, virtually anyone can use a computer and program it to perform new tasks.
On Wednesday, the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest society of IT professionals, said Dr Aho and Dr Ullman will receive this year’s Turing Prize for their work on the fundamental concepts behind computer programming languages. Awarded since 1966 and often referred to as the Nobel Prize for Computer Science, the Turing Prize comes with a $ 1 million prize, which the two academics and longtime friends will share.
Dr Aho and Dr Ullman have helped refine one of the key components of a computer: the “compiler” which takes software programs written by humans into account and turns them into something computers can understand.
Over the past five decades, computer scientists have built increasingly intuitive programming languages, making it increasingly easier to create software for desktops, laptops, smartphones, cars, and even supercomputers. Compilers ensure that these languages are translated efficiently into ones and zeros that computers understand.
Without their work, “we wouldn’t be able to write an app for our phones,” said Krysta Svore, a researcher at Microsoft who studied with Mr. Aho at Columbia University, where he was chair of the department. computer science. “We wouldn’t have the cars we drive these days.”
Researchers also wrote numerous textbooks and taught generations of students how computer software development was different from electrical engineering or mathematics.
“Their fingerprints are all over the field,” said Graydon Hoare, the creator of a programming language called Rust. He added that two of Dr Ullman’s books were on the shelf next to him.
After leaving Princeton, Dr. Aho, a 79-year-old Canadian-born, and Dr. Ullman, a 78-year-old New Yorker, joined the Bell Labs headquarters in New Jersey, which was then one from the world’s leading research laboratories.
Dr Ullman, now a professor emeritus at Stanford University, was also instrumental in the development of the languages and concepts that manage databases, software for storing and retrieving information essential to everything from the engine from Google search to applications used by office workers across the globe.
The ideas cultivated by Dr Aho and Dr Ullman are even part of the computers of the future. At Microsoft, Dr. Svore works on quantum computers, experimental machines that rely on the strange behavior exhibited by things like electrons or exotic metals cooled to several hundred degrees below zero.
Quantum computers are based on a completely different type of physical behavior from traditional computers. But as they create programming languages for these machines, Dr Svore and his colleagues still draw on the work of Turing’s latest laureates.
“We rely on the same techniques,” she said.