Hennessy shares Turing Award with UC Berkeley collaborator

March 25, 2018, 3:36 p.m.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) presented its annual Turing Award to former Stanford President John Hennessy in honor of his work designing efficient computer architectures, which advanced the microprocessing industry.

Hennessy shares the prize with UC Berkeley computer science and electrical engineering professor emeritus David Patterson, with whom he collaborated to develop a “systematic, quantitative approach to the design and evaluation of computer architectures,” according to the ACM.

The Turing honors “lasting and major” technical contributions to the computing industry, according to the ACM. It includes a $1 million award and is considered comparable to the Nobel Prize in prestige.

“The Turing Award is truly a capstone to my career as a computer scientist,” said Hennessy, who was named chair of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, on Feb. 1.

Hennessy and Patterson received the award for developing the concept of a reduced instruction set computer (RISC) in the 1980s. Compared to its predecessor, the complex instruction set computer (CISC), RISC architecture uses simpler language to communicate directions. Because of the technology’s simplicity, RISC microprocessors operate faster and are less expensive to produce.

Independent projects conducted by Hennessy and Patterson — at Stanford and Berkeley, respectively — led to the development of RISC, a term originally coined by Patterson.

99 percent of the 16 billion microprocessors produced every year are RISC processors.

“RISC processors … are found in nearly all smartphones, tablets and the billions of embedded devices that comprise the Internet of Things,” according to a statement released by the ACM following the announcement of the award.

“The RISC designs pioneered by John Hennessy and Dave Patterson changed the trajectory of computer technology, making possible today’s fast, efficient and ubiquitous devices,” said Jennifer Widom, dean of the School of Engineering. “Their approach inspired the next generations of technology, including those being developed today.”

Although computer scientists had studied the possibility of simplifying computer architecture since the 1960s, it was the research conducted by Hennessy and Patterson that brought the approach to the forefront in academia and in the tech industry.

In 1989, Hennessy and Patterson co-authored a textbook titled “Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach.” Now in its sixth edition, the text is still widely used in computer architecture classes.

“The book was groundbreaking in that it was the first text of its kind to provide an analytical and scientific framework, as well as methodologies and evaluation tools for engineers and designers to evaluate the net value of microprocessor design,” according to the ACM statement.

A banquet will take place in San Francisco on June 23 to honor the award winners. There, Hennessy and Patterson will formally receive their prize.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates said that Hennessy’s and Patterson’s breakthroughs “have proven to be fundamental to the very foundation upon which an entire industry flourished.”


Contact Holden Foreman at hs4man21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Holden Foreman '21 was the Vol. 258-59 chief technology officer. Holden was president and editor-in-chief in Vol. 257, executive editor (vice president) in Vol. 256, managing editor of news in Vol. 254 and student business director in Vol. 255.

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