Science & Tech

Computer science pioneer Barbara J. Grosz awarded Allen Newell Award

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Prestigious honor from ACM/AAAI recognizes career contributions in bridging computer science with other fields

Barbara J. Grosz, Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences at the
Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and dean of
the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, was
awarded the Allen Newell Award from the Association for Computing
Machinery (ACM)/Association for the Advancement of Artificial
Intelligence (AAAI). The Newell Award recognizes career contributions
that have breadth within computer science or that bridge computer
science and other disciplines.

Grosz, an innovator in computer science well known for her
contributions to artificial intelligence (AI) and for her leadership in
efforts to increase the participation of women in science, was
recognized for pioneering research in natural language processing and
multi-agent systems, and leadership in the artificial intelligence
field. Her highly interdisciplinary work draws on theories and results
from economics, philosophy and psychology as well as computer science.
She shares the award with colleague Joseph Y. Halpern, a Cornell
University professor of computer science recognized for making
fundamental advances in reasoning about knowledge, belief and

“I am delighted to be a recipient of this year’s Allen Newell
Award,” said Grosz. “Allen was a hero for me from the earliest days of
my time in AI, and he provided a role model for my research in the
kinds of problems he chose, the breadth of fields he brought to bear on
his research, and in his considering ‘how people work’ as well as how
computer systems work. It’s very special to receive an award in his

Newell (1927–1992)—considered a founder of two major disciplines,
artificial intelligence and cognitive science—created some of the first
computational models of human problem solving with psychologist and
Nobel laureate Herbert Simon (1916–2001). Grosz’s research takes a
similar multidisciplinary approach, focusing on how to build better
systems for human-computer communication, or as she said in her first lecture as Radcliffe dean in October 2008, creating collaborative computer systems “that adapt to us rather [than us to them].”

In particular, the ACM cited Grosz’s contributions to natural
language processing, the study of the basic structures and processes by
which people use natural languages to communicate, and her more recent
research on the development of multi-agent systems, “smart” and
adaptable computer algorithms that collaborate with each other or with
their human users.

“I am thrilled that Barbara’s work is being recognized in this
manner,” said Greg Morrisett, Allen B. Cutting Professor of Computer
Science and associate dean for computer science and electrical
engineering at SEAS. “The great thing about her research on planning,
collaboration, focus and intent is that it provides as much insight
into human processes as the artificial.”

For example, Grosz helped to develop Colored Trails (,
a publicly available program that provides a platform for researchers
to conduct decision-making studies. While such work involves core
problems in computer science, she draws on fields as diverse as
economics, philosophy and psychology to study everyday, but complex
real life situations. With students and colleagues, she has recently
studied interruption and created dynamic systems that know when a user
might desire or need a certain piece of information (and how willing
such a user would be to respond to a computer-based query).

“Through her influential research and selfless service to the field,
Barbara Grosz has been an inspiration—and her work has been influential
in the research trajectories of many AI researchers, including myself.
She richly deserves this honor,” said Stuart Shieber, James O. Welch,
Jr. and Virginia B. Welch Professor of Computer Science, Director for
the Office for Scholarly Communication and 2006–2007 Radcliffe
Institute fellow.

Grosz was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2008,
the American Philosophical Society in 2003, and the American Academy of
Arts and Sciences in 2004. She is a fellow of the Association for the
Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), the Association for
Computing Machinery and the American Association for the Advancement of
Science. In 1993, she became the first woman president of the AAAI. She
serves on the executive committee and is a former trustee of the
International Joint Conferences on Artificial Intelligence and serves
on the council of the American Philosophical Society. Grosz earned a
bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Cornell University and master’s
and doctoral degrees in computer science from the University of
California at Berkeley.

“Barbara is eminently worthy of the Newell Award and it is so
fitting that this award is named after one of the initiators of the
study of person-computer interactions,” remarked Michael Rabin, Thomas
J. Watson, Sr. Professor of Computer Science at SEAS and a past winner
of the ACM’s Turing Award. “Barbara did pioneering work on the
computerized understanding of natural languages, on intention and
structure of discourse, on agents and planning and other fundamentally
important problems bearing on human-machine interactions. Her
contributions are referenced thousands of times. She is both a leader
in the field and a role model for women aspiring to enter computer

The ACM/AAAI Allen Newell Award is presented for career
contributions that have breadth within computer science, or that bridge
computer science and other disciplines. This endowed award is
accompanied by a prize of $10,000, and is supported by the Association
for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence and individual
contributions. Previous winners with connections to Harvard University
include 1994 winner Frederick P. Brooks ’56 (Ph.D. in computer science,
under Howard Aiken) and 2002 winner Peter Chen ’73 (Ph.D. in computer
science; visiting professor).

Grosz will receive her award at the ACM Awards dinner on June 27, 2009, at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego, California.