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Computer Theorist Wins $1 Million Turing Award

TechComputer Theorist Wins $1 Million Turing Award

Computers seem methodical, deliberate and utterly predictable. But they can also behave in ways that are completely random. As researchers build increasingly powerful machines, one key question is: What role will randomness play?

On Wednesday, the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest society of computing professionals, announced that this year’s Turing Award will go to Avi Wigderson, an Israeli-born mathematician and theoretical computer scientist who specializes in randomness.

Often called the Nobel Prize of computing, the Turing Award comes with a $1 million prize. The award is named for Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped create the foundations for modern computing in the mid-20th century.

Other recent winners include Ed Catmull and Pat Hanrahan, who helped create the computer-generated imagery, or C.G.I., that drives modern movies and television, and the A.I. researchers Geoffrey Hinton, Yann LeCun and Yoshua Bengio, who nurtured the techniques that gave rise to chatbots like ChatGPT.

Although computers typically behave in deterministic ways — meaning they follow a predictable pattern laid down by their creators — scientists have also shown that random behavior can help solve some problems. In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Wigderson said randomness played a role in smartphone applications, cloud computing systems, microprocessors and more.

“It is everywhere,” he said.

Randomness is essential to cryptography, where unique digital keys are used to lock down data and applications. Algorithms that involve random behavior can also help analyze complex situations, like activity in the stock market, a storm moving across the country or the spread of diseases.

Dr. Wigderson, a mathematics professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., was among a group of academics who published a series of papers that explored the role of randomness in solving extraordinarily hard problems, like predicting the weather or finding a cure for cancer.

The ultimate lesson of this work, said Madhu Sudan, a theoretical computer scientist at Harvard University, is that computers can resolve many complex problems that humans will never completely understand, but some things will remain a mystery, even to machines.

“It shows that there are many things we can solve with computers,” Dr. Sudan said. “It also shows that this progress will not be limitless.”

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