Why Larry and Sergey Should Win the Turing Award

The winners for 2019 have just been announced, so it’s a great time to start lobbying for next year. Congrats to Ed Catmull (also the author of the amazing book “Creativity, Inc.”) and Pat Hanrahan.

It is perhaps as bad a time as any to write anything even remotely laudatory about Big Tech, and the more prominent among the company chieftains. The two gentlemen that the article deals with are hardly angels: one granting a massive stock package to controversial Android impresario Andy Rubin and over-eagerly delegating anything even remotely unpleasant to Sundar Pichai; the other entertaining the public with his salacious affair and splurging shareholder money on pet projects. Among other things.

An odd preamble to a nominating speech, I admit. Yet these misgivings are another topic altogether. The fact is, my friends, that Larry Page and Sergey Brin are computer scientists of genuine consequence, which unfortunately gets obscured by their lofty net worth and Google’s turmoil in recent years.

On to the main argument: that information retrieval and search engines are a massively important area of computer science, an inescapable presence in everyone’s life (3.5 billion Google searches per day), and the science powering them should self-evidently warrant a Turing Award or two. By way of comparison, databases have so far received four, programming languages and compilers over ten, and artificial intelligence about five even before Hinton/Bengio/LeCun when it actually started working.

The second critical question is whether Page and Brin made such a profound impact on the field that they should be the recipients. Now, in any given field this is a tough thing to claim, and this one is no different. The situation, though, is simplified by the simple fact that several of the most important early pioneers have met their demise, such as Gerry Salton and Karen Spärck Jones.

This leaves the field open for the Google founders, based on their breakthrough, PageRank. The idea of exploiting the link structure of the web to determine the ranking of search results was profound, took the state of the art to an entirely different level, and allowed them to beat competitors like Lycos and DEC’s AltaVista, on sheer quality.¹

That they leveraged this to build a corporate behemoth is actually a plus in computer science, where business success is actually appreciated as a validation of theoretical advances. Look no further than RISC magnate John Hennessy or database purveyor Michael Stonebraker, as well as numerous other recipients who worked in industry rather than pure academia. Indeed, even this year’s Turing award went to moguls: Pixarman Catmull and Tableau co-founder Pat Hanrahan.

To conclude, it is high time that the main contributors to the theory and practice of information retrieval got their just deserts, and though the field has had many significant contributors, it is my view that the Google founders took the game to a different level, and that they should be duly recognized.

[1] It should also be noted that Robin Li, later of Baidu, filed a patent similar to PageRank that predates it. But he was arguably less influential due to the insularity of the Chinese tech sector. Or perhaps he should join as the third recipient.

Disclaimer: The author has no connection whatsoever to Google, Alphabet, nor Messrs Page and Brin. Merely a wish to see good computer science rewarded.

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Building https://www.quicknews.ai/. Ex-Amazon Engineer, on AWS and Alexa. Vancouver, BC.

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