A Prize for Pearl

Computers today are true thinking machines, with the ability to weigh and decide among alternatives, almost as people do. That is possible due in large part to the work of Judea Pearl, who received his PhD in Electrical Engineering from Polytechnic in 1965. While his dissertation was on superconducting currents, and led to the discovery of what physicists call today the “Pearl vortex,” his later work has focused on artificial intelligence (AI).

Dr. Pearl was recently recognized for his “fundamental contributions to artificial intelligence through the development of a calculus for probabilistic and causal reasoning” with the 2011 A. M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery. This prestigious award, named after computer pioneer Alan Turing, is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of Computing, and has previously gone to such pioneers and luminaries in the field as Herbert Simon, John McCarthy and Donald Knuth.

Dr. Pearl’s work made it possible to process information and draw conclusions despite uncertainty, through his invention of Bayesian networks, a mathematical way to define complex probability models. This not only revolutionized the field of AI but became an important tool for many other branches of engineering and the natural and social sciences—among them computational biology, statistics, philosophy, and human genetics—all of which have one thing in common: explaining and drawing conclusions from noisy data and uncertain knowledge.

His work has also enabled the construction of robots that are able to use algorithms to imagine alternatives, assess potential scenarios and draw defensible conclusions. Applications such as search engines, voice recognition, image understanding and text comprehension depend on these theories.

Dr. Pearl admits to being both pleased and surprised at being awarded the Turing, since his main research is not considered mainstream computer science, he says. “My work has more to do with human cognition and the logic of scientific thinking than with making computers more powerful.”

The Israeli-born and- educated Pearl chose Polytechnic University because it “had quite a reputation in Israel,” where he received his BS degree in 1960 from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. “Poly’s Microwave Research Institute was one of the most sought-after post-graduate schools among Technion’s students,” he notes. But the critical factor was the flexibility he was allowed to pursue his PhD thesis while working full-time at the RCA research laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey, where he worked on superconducting memories. In 1969, he began teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he founded the Cognitive Systems Laboratory. The author of hundreds of technical papers and several influential books, he is also the recipient of many honorary degrees and awards, including the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computers and Cognitive Science and election to the American Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the IEEE AI Hall of Fame.

In 2007, Pearl received an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto. In his commencement speech, he said scientists like Galileo were his heroes, “because Galileo showed that to be a scientist you must have both respect for the truth, and the audacity to believe that you can find it… Truth can be elusive, even in our times, covered by the heavy fog of fear and hidden agenda. It is only after the murder of my son, Danny, that I came to appreciate how hard it is, even in the age of Internet, to stay the course of truth.”

Part of his $250,000 Turing award money will support the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which was founded by Pearl and his wife, Ruth, and named in honor of their son, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered in Pakistan in 2002. The foundation began with the intention to promote Daniel’s values of “uncompromised objectivity and integrity; insightful and unconventional perspective; tolerance and respect for people of all cultures; unshaken belief in the effectiveness of education and communication; and the love of music, humor, and friendship.” Its mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music and dialogue, and to roll back the ideology of hatred that took Daniel’s life. Another part of the prize will go to introduce causal analysis in college education.

To young people and Poly students, his advice is: “Do not take no for an answer, question the ruling paradigms of your teachers, and, even if you do not prove them wrong, you are sure to find some powerful tools along the way.”

He adds that “I would like to be remembered as a scientist who helped Israel climb to third place in the number of Turing Award winners (after the U.S. and the UK) and thus paid back some of the debt I owe to a country that invested so dearly in my education and intellectual making.”