The Turing Award

The Turing Award.

It was just announced this week that the ACM A.M. Turing Award has been given to Alan Kay, to recognize his great work on Smalltalk, object-oriented programming, and the personal computer. Congratulations, Dr. Kay!

Alan Kay is my hero. He is a great visionary, and yet in the two times I've met him I have always found him to be humble and unassuming. He embodies what I love most in researchers: he has a simple, unsullied desire to just make things better for people.

Of the 47 Turing Award recipients, I've met 14 of them, and four of them I know very well (one of the coolest parts of my job).

The Turing Award is often described as the “Nobel Prize” for computer science (as the Draper Prize is for engineering, and the Fields Medal is for mathematics). But it isn't. In truth, there is no Nobel Prize for computer science, because no one outside the computer science community knows about the Turing Award.

No one in the mainstream of society actually knows or understands what a Nobel prize winner in economics or chemistry actually did. but the beauty of it is, they don't have to. The Nobel brand has been developed well enough that it confers high esteem upon its recipient with a blind assumption that whatever they did is of enormous importance to the world.

I've been wondering for a long time how we could get to the point where the Turing Award has the same stature has the Nobel prize. Now, sitting here, I realize that is the wrong answer, because it never will. The right answer is to start a full-force campaign to get the Nobel committee to add a prize for computer science. After all, computer science is revoluionizing every other scientific discipline and thus is having more impact than any of the other. When we finally discover an AIDS vaccine, it most likely be discovered by a computer sifting through a vast ocean of data. Think about the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and our most recent discoveries of standing water on Mars; it could not have been done without computers.

The world needs to know about Alan Kay. Why? Because computing is going to have more impact on the world than any other discipline in the next 20 years, and we need to make sure that the smartest, most capable people are going into the field. Today we are faced with a crisis of identity and stature for the field, as computer science enrollments decline in higher education in the West. As I have written before, yes, there is still a lot of computer science going on in other departments, but the danger of splintering out like this is that we will lose sight of the commonalities and continuously re-invent the wheel in each of the separate disciplines. It's fine that Alan Kay is my hero, but he should be the hero for my kids too — long before they ever take a CS class. Alan Kay can inspire generations with his vision of how computers can make things better for people. And it's our responsibility to make sure that happens.

We need to organize a campaign to get a Nobel prize in computer science established. Who's with me?  [Kevin Schofield's Weblog]

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