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Nobel Prize and Computing: Who will get first India or China?

Asoke K. Laha
President & MD, Interra IT


I often wonder why there is no Nobel Prize for computer science, where innovations and disruptions are taking place at regular intervals, forcing range of technologies to move from one generation to the other at rapid speed and pace. I did take only a click to the Google to realize how ill-informed I am about the Nobel Prizes. My knowledge did not travel with time and got stuck somewhere.  

Alfred Nobel’s last will, dating back to 1895 included only five prizes, to recognize the outstanding achievements in disciplines like chemistry, physics, literature, peace and physiology or medicine. Understandably, these were the core disciplines of his time, which bought about or had the potential to bring about transformation to confer greatest benefit on mankind. Theprizes in Chemistry, Literature, Peace and Medicine   were first awarded in 1901. In 1968, Sweden's central bank SverigesRiksbank established the SverigesRiksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, which, although not being a Nobel Prize,] has become informally known as the "Nobel Prize in Economics.” The Nobel Prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious award available in the fields of literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, economics and activism for peace.

Sixty-threeyears after his demise, several prizes were instituted by various entities at different points of time. None of these are sponsored by the Nobel Foundation but has been referred as Nobel Prize of that particular subject.  They gradually gained wider recognition and popularity. These include Wolf Prize in Agriculture (1978), Huxley Memorial Medal and Lecture (1900) for Anthropology, Pritzker Prize (1979) in Architecture and  Turning Award (1966) for Computer Science. The list will expand as new horizons of innovations and thought leaders emerge.   

Coming to Turning Award for computer science, this prize is given by Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) to an individual for the contributions of lasting and major technical importance to the computer field and is generally recognized as the highest award in computer science and the Nobel Prize of Computing. The award is named after Alan Turning, a British mathematician and reader in mathematics at the University of Manchester and is often credited as the key founder of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. Between 2007 and 2013, the award had an additional prize of US $250,000, with financial support provided by Intel and Google. Since 2014, the award has been accompanied by a prize of US $1million, with financial support provided by Google.The first recipient- in 1966- was Alan Perils  of Carnegie Mellon University. The recent recipients are  John L Hennessy and David A Patterson for pioneering systematic, quantitative approach to the design and evaluation of computer architectures with enduring impact on microprocessor industry. 

Another thought that haunts me is whether we have enough institutional mechanisms to recognize contributions in the IT, apart from the coveted Nobel prize.  I do not   think that we have many. My feeling is that we should have many more awards and other type of recognitions for promoting innovations in the IT space. Why not have an award for person/s who innovate a technology that can reduce the drudgery of masses. 

A related field is stem cells and organ donations. We have been told that breakthrough innovations are taking place in medical space for treatment of chronic non-communicable disease like diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer etc. by using stem cell technology. These expensive categories of treatments are still in the precinct of the    developed world and that too within the reach of the rich and privileged. 

Does it suggest that there is scope for introducing Nobel prizes for different categories of  computer sciences, such as one connected with pure discoveries and innovations, such as artificial intelligence, algorithms and programs that can facilitate cutting edge concepts and technologies in  medical science, engineering or any  subject that unravels human mysteries such as astronomy, anthropology, geology etc. 

Let us have a look at what China is up to in artificial intelligence to gauge that country’s levity and commitment to be the first in the technology front.   AI-optimized chips have become  central to the future of the technology industry  leading to re-imagining products of all hues and sizes.   Undoubtedly, China leads the pack. Their Cambricon-1A chip, developed is widely debated among the scientific community. Everyone thought  that was possible only  in the West, particularly in the Silicon Valley. Chinaproved  them wrong. The country is investing massively in the entire field of AI, from chips to algorithms. China's State Council unveiled an ambitious policy blueprint to become the world's primary AI innovation center by 2030.  The  Chinese government and industry have been launching AI initiatives jointly.  It will build a $2.1 billion AI technology park in Beijing's western suburbs. 

Can India close the gap in R&D in computer science vis-à-vis the US and China? A pessimist would see going by the present level of investment that it is an impossible task. But being an incorrigible optimist, I still bet on India, provided that it changes its science policy. Rhetoric would not take us anywhere or statements that can steal headlines, cannot push our development plans ahead. China has kept under wraps most of its research projects and I still believe that country   has not made public even a fraction of the projects underway. India may have to follow an approach, wherein there should be heavy investments and concerted effort for creating the right eco system for R&D. Some of our universities and the specialized institutions, such as IIITs created exclusively for taking IT industry to higher levels of excellence, should be empowered to take research and not act as  hubs for students to learn computer and later migrate to the US universities and other institutions across the world. 

China's dominant search engine -Baidu, gathers and exploits much of these data. In Beijing, cars crowned with LIDAR sensors troll around on test runs for collecting mapping data that will feed Baidu's autonomous driving lab. In the main lobby of offices,  staffers' faces are scanned to open the security gates. Of China's tech titans-Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent-Baidu was the first to pour resources into AI. It now employs more than 2000 AI researchers, including staff in California and Seattle, Washington.

Let me end with a personal note. Days are numbered when a Chinese name props up for awarding the Nobel Prize. It could be matter of time when they would join that select league. Could that be told about India or any other  emerging economies? At least not in the near future! That is what I feel. I wish that I am wrong. n

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