Artificial Intelligence But Real Style at the Turing Conference

By Krissy Eliot

The Turing Award is basically “the Nobel prize of computing,” named after the founding father of the field and given to those who kick the most butt in computer science.  So if you had to guess which university has won the most awards over the last half-century, you’d probably say Massachusetts Institute of Technology, maybe Carnegie Mellon.

But nope! The reigning champion is UC Berkeley with 28 Turing affiliations to date, including Michael Stonebraker for contributions to modern database systems (2014), Silvio Micali and Shafi Goldwasser for foundations of cryptography (2012), and Barbara Liskov for her work in computer programming language design (2008).

And at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Turing Award 50th Anniversary Celebration conference this year, Liskov gave the opening speech, Berkeley computer science professors Stuart Russell and Michael I. Jordan talked about how we’re far from human-level A.I., and UC Berkeley School of Information professor Deirdre Mulligan moderated the ethics and computing panel like the tech/law powerhouse she’s known to be.

It’s not really surprising that Cal can claim so many revolutionary thinkers—but rather—how well-dressed some of the Turing thinkers were when I visited the conference last week. Rather than a swarm of nerds with thick-rimmed glasses and shirts buttoned to the throat, there were a remarkable number of classy bearded men with white hair walking around the conference in expensive three-pieces—a bunch of Dumbledores in Gucci.

I complimented 2015 Turing laureate Whitfield Diffie on his dashing gray suit, to which he responded by leaning in with a smile to say, “You should see Vint Cerf.” As if on cue, Cerf, the Internet pioneer responsible for the first commercial email service connected to the Internet, sauntered by in a dark suit that looked pressed by the Gods; I did a double-take. Was that wind in his beard? He gave me a knowing nod and no doubt went off to contemplate important things—things that would impress me had I understood them—and not been a lowly general interest reporter in the academic lion’s den.

During the conference, which covered everything from Moore’s law to the Internet of Things, the group of panelists were throwing out comments on “implementation and protocol flaws in computation technology” and “crypto export laws that 20 years ago were asking for backdoor crypto standards.”

Of course, it wasn’t all painfully complicated. Despite their seemingly superhuman intelligence, they were able to dumb things down for the newbs and tell us what computing issues we should be concerned about, particularly around data collection and privacy.

For instance, Stonebraker discussed the legal ramifications of collecting data from a growing number of devices with different encoding formats.

“There are tons of examples of data that can be assembled right now that will compromise privacy,” Stonebraker says. “Unfortunately, the social value to compromising privacy is pretty substantial. So, you can argue that technology has rendered privacy a moot question. Or you can argue that preserving privacy is a legislative issue.”

And Cerf, who has spoken at Cal on multiple occasions, sees what he calls “autonomy” as a major concern as more of our devices become dependent on the Internet.

“…You don’t want to have a highly automated house that doesn’t work when it’s not connected to the Internet,” Cerf says. “So you need to have a local capability independent of or in addition to the interactions through the public Internet.”

Mhm. Yes. Good to know.

Fortunately, I had been given idiot-proof pamphlets when I walked in the door of the conference, which I spent most of the day clutching to my chest, knowing that sooner or later they’d come in handy.

“We try to make this information accessible to everyone,” Turing Awards contact PR Jim Ormond told me. “That’s what the folder is for.”

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