Computer Chip Visionaries Win the $1 Million Turing Award
Former Stanford president John Hennessy and UC Berkeley professor emeritus Dave Patterson won the $1 million 2017 Alan Turing Award on Wednesday for their breakthrough work in designing energy-efficient chips in the 1980s that set the stage for smartphones' omnipresence today.
Yet the two world-renowned computer scientists are worried about some aspects of the very computing revolution they have helped to jump-start. In an interview with this news organization, Hennessy and Patterson expressed concerns about the impacts artificial intelligence and advanced robotics will have on younger generations, and the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities in computer chips that can allow hackers to access critical personal data.
Hennessy suggested Silicon Valley is about to undergo the latest industrial revolution, which will occur much faster than the one in the 19th century -- perhaps within a decade. He expressed concern about the effects artificial intelligence and advanced robotics will have on the American job market.
"What are my grandkids going to do?" Patterson asked. "Are they going to have to retrain themselves for jobs every few years? I hope we figure it out before we pull out the pitchforks and guillotines."
Patterson called the Spectre vulnerability, which tricks running programs to hand over private data, an "existential attack on how we build processors today."
The Meltdown and Spectre bugs are found in nearly all microprocessors in smartphones, computers and servers produced since 1995, after Hennessy's and Patterson's award-winning microprocessor design work was conducted. Santa Clara-based chip maker Intel said last week that it has made progress in fighting the vulnerabilities through software patches and an upcoming generation of microprocessors with newly designed hardware.
The Alan Turing Award -- named after the famed British mathematician during World War II credited as the father of modern computing -- is the most prestigious award in the field of computer science. Referred to in the industry as the "Nobel Prize of computing," the Turing Award carries a $1 million award and additional financial support from Google, according to the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). Hennessy and Patterson will share the $1 million.
Both Hennessy and Patterson now work for Google and its parent company, Alphabet. Hennessy, who was Stanford's 10th president from 2000 to 2016, stepped down from his position to become Alphabet's board chairman. Patterson serves as a distinguished engineer at Google, working on machine learning and artificial intelligence.
They won the Turing Award for their separate projects at Stanford and Berkeley in the early 1980s that pioneered a new microprocessor design called reduced instruction set computer (RISC), coined by Patterson and his Berkeley team.
RISC's architecture allowed the chip to use a small, highly optimized set of instructions rather than a larger, specialized set of instructions, saving energy and time while outperforming its competition. Today, nearly 99 percent of the 16 billion microprocessors produced every year are RISC processors, and they are found in nearly all smartphones, tablets and other smart devices, according to the ACM.
Hennessy and Patterson teamed up in 1989 to publish the textbook "Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach." Over six editions through nearly three decades, the textbook remains a key guide for computer science students, professors and professional engineers, the ACM said.
"ACM initiated the Turing Award in 1966 to recognize contributions of lasting and major technical importance to the computing field," said ACM President Vicki Hanson, in a prepared statement released Wednesday. "The work of Hennessy and Patterson certainly exemplifies this standard. Their contributions to energy-efficient RISC-based processors have helped make possible the mobile and (internet of things) revolutions. At the same time, their seminal textbook has advanced the pace of innovation across the industry over the past 25 years by influencing generations of engineers and computer designers."
Hennessy and Patterson will formally receive the Turing Award at the ACM's annual awards banquet on June 23 in San Francisco.
Their contributions "have proven to be fundamental to the very foundation upon which an entire industry flourished," Microsoft founder Bill Gates said in the ACM statement about the award.
Hennessy told this news organization that winning the Turing Award was a "real capstone" to his and Patterson's 40-year-plus careers.
Patterson reminisced about how far both have come since unveiling their RISC designs as professors without tenure -- and facing a huge backlash from the computer industry.
"It was extraordinarily controversial, which is surprising in retrospect," said Patterson. "What we were doing was counter to prevailing wisdom. People were debating this was dangerous. I remember we gave a talk in Palo Alto and another debate in New York City, and these would pack the audience. People were passionate (about RISC)."
To codify in writing their computing principles that led to RISC's creation, Hennessy and Patterson wrote "Computer Architecture." Both were inspired to write by the 1974 Turing Award winner Donald Knuth and his textbook "The Art of Computer Programming," which served as their computing bible when they were young.
"(The book) was the hardest I worked on since working on my dissertation," said Patterson. "We treated it like we were designing chips. We worked really hard."
Both Hennessy and Patterson credited their respective universities and the Bay Area for creating the space and community necessary to innovate and gain acclaim as computer scientists.
"There's almost nowhere in the world where you can be associated with a great university like Stanford or Berkeley and participate in the excitement of Silicon Valley," said Hennessy. "I thought 20 years ago there would be another part of the country which would challenge the Bay Area's dominance in tech. The opposite happened, the Bay Area actually pulled ahead."
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Image credit: ACM (Association for Computing Machinery); iStock/Artist's concept.