Former UC Berkeley professor honored with Turing Award

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The Association for Computing Machinery, or ACM, granted UC Berkeley computer science professor emeritus David Patterson and former president of Stanford University John Hennessy the ACM A.M. Turing Award for their work in the development of RISC microprocessors.

Together, the pair created a “systematic and quantitative approach to designing faster, lower power, and reduced complexity microprocessors,” according to the ACM A.M. Turing Award official website.

These RISC microprocessors allow for reduced instruction sets, which allow a computer to function faster, Patterson said.

When software talks to hardware, Patterson said, there is a certain vocabulary that the computer has to use. In the past, the size of the vocabulary was directly proportional to the computer size, so large computers had larger vocabularies.

Patterson added that he and Hennessy proposed that it makes more sense to provide a smaller vocabulary with monosyllabic words for a microprocessor.

“The scientific question was how many reduced instructions would the computer need, and how fast could the computer read these simple instructions,” Patterson said. “The answer was that we needed 20 percent more words, but four times as fast.”

According to the official website, the impact of their work has been “stunning,” with billions of processors using the pair’s reduced-complexity architecture.

When he began his research, Patterson said he expected that microprocessors would become more popular with the progression of computer science.

“The surprise is that the vocabulary we were using in the 1980s is the same as the vocabulary we use now, 35 years later,” Patterson added.

Patterson is now the vice chairman of the board of directors for the RISC-V Foundation, which provides an open source instruction set from which anyone could build hardware. Unlike Intel’s proprietary instruction sets, RISC-V provides an instruction set for free, according to Patterson.

Patterson added that his fondest research memory has to be when the RISC microprocessor chip first worked. He said a group of UC Berkeley graduate students presented the RISC chip at a leading hardware conference, and the audience was impressed.

“A half dozen Berkeley graduate students built a microchip more powerful than Intel could,” Patterson said.

There were six other independent projects in the 1980s at Berkeley that led to Turing Awards, according to Patterson. UC Berkeley graduate students with Turing Awards include Shafi Goldwasser and Silvio Micali, both of whom received their doctorates from Berkeley in the 1980s, according to the ACM A.M. Turing award site

Patterson stated that he does not think he would have won this award if he were not a professor at UC Berkeley. He said he has been at Berkeley for more than 40 years, and it is an institution he has learned to love.

“There has never been a more successful group of computer scientists as there were at UC Berkeley in the 1980s,” Patterson said.

Rishabh Nijhawan is the lead higher education reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @realRishNij.