When Alfred Aho and Jeffrey Ullman met in line on their first day at Princeton University in 1963, computer science was still a strange new world.
Using a computer required a range of esoteric skills normally reserved for trained engineers and mathematicians. Thanks to the work of Dr. Aho and Dr. Ullman virtually anyone today can use a computer and program it to perform new tasks.
On Wednesday, the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest society of computing professionals, announced that Dr. Aho and Dr. Ullman would receive this year’s Turing Award for her work on the fundamental concepts underlying computer programming languages. The Turing Prize, which has been awarded since 1966 and is often referred to as the Nobel Prize for Computers, is endowed with prize money of $ 1 million, which the two academics and longtime friends will share.
Dr. Aho and Dr. Ullman helped refine one of the key components of a computer: the “compiler,” which takes human-written software programs and turns them into something computers can understand.
Over the past five decades, computer scientists have increasingly developed intuitive programming languages that make it increasingly easier for people to create software for desktops, laptops, smartphones, cars, and even supercomputers. Compilers ensure that these languages are efficiently translated into the ones and zeros that computers understand.
Without her work, “we couldn’t write an app for our phones,” said Krysta Svore, a Microsoft researcher who studied with Mr. Aho at Columbia University, where he was chairman of the computer science department. “We wouldn’t have the cars we drive these days.”
The researchers also wrote many textbooks and taught generations of students as they defined how computer software development differs from electrical engineering or mathematics.
“Your fingerprints are all over the field,” said Graydon Hoare, creator of a programming language called Rust. He added that two of Dr. Ullman’s books were on the shelf next to him.
After leaving Princeton, both Dr. Aho, a native Canadian who is 79 years old, as well as Dr. Ullman, a native New Yorker, who is 78 years old, headed Bell Labs’ New Jersey headquarters, which was then one of the world’s leading research laboratories.
Dr. Ullman, now Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, was also instrumental in developing the languages and concepts that drive databases, the information storage and retrieval software used for everything from Google search engines to that of office workers in the world Critical applications used all over the world are globus.
Dr. Aho and Dr. Ullman’s neat ideas are even part of the computers of the future. At Microsoft, Dr. Svore on quantum computers, experimental machines based on the strange behavior of electrons or exotic metals that have cooled to several hundred degrees below zero.
Quantum computers are based on a completely different physical behavior than conventional computers. While creating programming languages for these machines, Dr. Svore and her colleagues still get back to the work of the latest Turing winners.
“We build on the same techniques,” she said.