No Nobel Prize in Computing: Why Not?

When Nobel Prizes are dished out each fall, the most accomplished professionals in computing, telecom, and IT have usually been left out in the cold. That's because there is no Nobel Prize for these fields, and it's unlikely there will be one any time soon.


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BACKGROUND: Gold medals, knighthood and $1M cash prizes: Being a tech pioneer is a real honor

According to the Nobel Foundation: "The Nobel Prizes, as designated in the Will of Alfred Nobel, are in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Only once has a prize been added -- a Memorial Prize -- The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, donated by Sweden's central bank to celebrate its tercentenary in 1968. The Nobel Foundation's Board of Directors later decided to keep the original five prizes intact and not to permit new additions."

The fact that Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, died in 1896 meant that the prizes were defined just a wee bit before the IT industry really exploded. After all, the Computer History Museum's official timeline doesn't even start until 1939.

So, if IBM, Google, Apple or some other deep-pocketed tech company wanted to make a big donation along the lines of what Sweden's central bank did in 1968, maybe it could sway the Nobel Foundation to add a prize. But it most likely wouldn't be officially called a Nobel Prize.

Meanwhile, IT/computing/telecom innovators haven't been completely ignored by the Nobel Foundation. The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2009, for example, went in part to Charles Kuen Kao, sometimes called the Father of Fiber-optic Communications.

Without an official Nobel Prize in Computing, the IT industry is left with de facto Nobel Prizes in computing and communications and engineering , such as the Association of Computing Machinery's (ACM) A.M. Turing Award , the National Academy of Engineering's Charles Stark Draper Prize, and the Marconi Society's Marconi Prize. All of these organizations are known to refer to their awards as "the Nobel Prize in..." and are more than happy to have others refer to their prizes that way, too. Though the ACM and Marconi Society acknowledge they'd prefer to see an actual Nobel Prize devoted to computing and/or communications.

In fact, the ACM reportedly approached the Nobel Foundation with an offer to bankroll such a prize, but was turned down.

"I would certainly like to see [a Nobel Prize in Computing]. I'd love to have something that the public recognizes," says Jim Horning, an accomplished computer scientist who is co-chair of the ACM's Awards Committee. "We think the quality of our award is comparable, but the word 'Nobel' adds its own cachet."

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The 2010 A.M. Turing Award, which comes with a $250,000 prize, went to Leslie Valiant, a versatile Harvard University computer scientist whose work has influenced everything from artificial intelligence to distributed computing. The previous winner was Microsoft researcher Charles P. Thacker.

Internet architect and current Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf, who chaired the 2010 Turing Award committee, says he'd like to see a Nobel Prize in Computing because even the top awards that recognize great achievements in mathematics, computing and engineering don't get nearly the same amount of visibility in the general population as do Nobels. "The Nobel Prizes are so well known and the 'laureate' label sticks -- giving the recipient a kind of career label that no other prize does." (More from Cerf here)

Bruce Wooley, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University and chair of the 2011 IEEE Awards Board, says he too would love to see a Nobel Prize in Computing. "I think there should be an award," says the research staff member at Bell Labs. "Engineering is more of a creative process than traditional science, even though it can include engineering."

Marconi Society Executive Director Hatti Hamlin says she would also like to see a Nobel Prize in computing.

"A number of the people honored with a Marconi Prize or by the IEEE will never qualify in the categories that Nobel currently honors," she says. "A guy like Andrew Viterbi ...his impact is undeniable. He developed the underlying operating system for the most prevalent cell phone networks in the world." (Learn about 2011''s Marconi Prize winners)

Slideshow: Whirlwind tour of technology's top honors, awards and prizes

John Hollar, president and CEO of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, says, "It's interesting to wonder if Alfred Nobel, were he alive today, would he see computing in the same way as the pure sciences for which there are Nobel Prizes. ... If you look at the rationale Nobel used when he created prizes to honor endeavors that bring the world together in a peaceful way and move humanity forward, computing certainly fits that desire."

Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, who has piled up many awards including a Marconi Prize and National Medal of Technology, says there are enough Nobel Prizes already -- he's been less than impressed by some recent Nobel Peace Prize recipients. "The Turing Award is good enough -- just increase the prize to $1M."

For those who do want to see the computing industry honored by Nobel, there is at least this bit of hope in 2011: Reportedly, the Internet/Web and some of its pioneers such as Tim Berners-Lee and Vint Cerf, along with WikiLeaks, have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Nobel nominations are kept confidential for a period of 50 years by the Nobel Foundation, though some individual voters have revealed their picks.)

Bob Brown has a far better shot at an Ig Nobel than a Nobel. Follow his tweets here

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

This story, "No Nobel Prize in Computing: Why Not?" was originally published by Network World.

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