Yesterday, UCLA professor Judea Pearl was announced the winner of the 2011 A.M. Turing award, often called the computing equivalent to the Nobel Prize. The award honored Pearl's work on probability, which laid the foundations for much of modern artificial intelligence by creating a way for computers to process uncertainty or cause-and-effect relationships. Alfred Spector of Google, which helps fund the award, says that "Before Pearl, most AI systems reasoned with Boolean logic — they understood true or false, but had a hard time with 'maybe.'" Computers made before Pearl's formulas could do very well in situations with set yes or no answers, but wouldn't have been able to deal with complex, naturalistic tasks like voice recognition or navigation.

In an interview with US News & World Report, Pearl says he is currently working on advancing how computers consider hypothetical counterfactuals, or statements that speculate about something not happening — think "Had John McCain won the presidency, what would have happened?" These statements, Pearl says, are the building blocks of moral reasoning, and could let artificial intelligence systems "take a responsibility" for their actions. Such a system would also help economists or other researchers improve their decision-making models.

The Turing Award, which has honored major contributions to the field of computing since 1966, should not be confused with the Loebner Prize, which is offered to conversational computers that can pass its version of the Turing Test.