Illinois Tech Alumnus Jack Dongarra Wins Turing Award for Pioneering Work in Supercomputing



By Casey Moffitt
Jack Dongarra

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has awarded Illinois Institute of Technology alumnus Jack Dongarra (M.S. CS ’73) with its highest honor—the 2021 A.M. Turing Award—for “major contributions of lasting importance” to the field of computing.

ACM bestowed the award, often referred to as the Nobel Prize of computing, by citing Dongarra’s pioneering contributions to numerical algorithms and libraries, which have enabled high-performance computational software to keep pace with more than 40 years of hardware improvements. The award also includes a $1 million prize funded by Google.

“This award recognizes another Illinois Tech alum that has changed the face of computing,” says Lance Fortnow, dean of Illinois Tech’s College of Computing. “Building on the computer science and mathematical ideas he learned at Illinois Tech, Jack Dongarra led the development of LINPACK, a software package that helped supercomputers solve complex mathematical problems and set the stage for powering modern machine learning.”

“Jack Dongarra played a central part in directing the successful trajectory of this [high-performance computing] field,” ACM President Gabriele Kotsis says in ACM’s announcement of the award. “His trailblazing work stretches back to 1979, and he remains one of the foremost and actively engaged leaders in the HPC community. His career certainly exemplifies the Turing Award’s recognition of ‘major contributions of lasting importance.’”

“His deep and important work at the core of the world’s most heavily used numerical libraries underlie every area of scientific computing, helping advance everything from drug discovery to weather forecasting, aerospace engineering, and dozens more fields, and his deep focus on characterizing the performance of a wide range of computers has led to major advances in computer architectures that are well suited for numeric computations,” says Jeff Dean, Google senior fellow and SVP of Google Research and Google Health.

Dongarra began creating code during his time at Illinois Tech while completing a master’s degree in computer science—code that evolved and led to the development of concepts that earned him the Turing Award. His interest in computing was sparked during a final semester undergraduate internship in the Applied Mathematics Research Group at Argonne National Laboratory. In a story in the spring 2016 issue of Illinois Tech Magazine, Dongarra said he realized how much he enjoyed working with computers, prompting him to pursue a master’s degree in computer science at Illinois Tech.

Without his exposure to computer science at Illinois Tech, Dongarra said in 2013, upon receiving the Professional Achievement Award from Illinois Tech, he might not have been part of such groundbreaking research in theoretical and applied mathematics and computer science.

“After finishing my undergraduate degree, I was planning to become a math or science teacher,” he said at the time. “But after participating in research at Argonne and being introduced to IIT, I fell in love with computing. My rigorous coursework in computer science laid the foundation for me to do research and create a successful career for myself.”

Illinois Tech offered Dongarra an assistantship that enabled him to work one day a week at Argonne. Following his graduation from Illinois Tech, Dongarra was hired full time at Argonne and earned his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of New Mexico, while also conducting research at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He is currently a member of the distinguished research staff at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

Dongarra, who currently sits on the Illinois Tech Computer Science Advisory Board, specializes in linear algebra, a form of mathematics that underpins many of the most ambitious tasks in computer science, including a critical part of the modeling of many natural systems in physics, astrophysics, climatology, chemistry and biology, human systems in economics, psychology, social science, and engineering. Early in his career, he worked with researchers at several American labs to develop LINPACK, an open source set of algorithms that help scientists across a wide range of disciplines to do their work. They benefit a wide range of users through their incorporation into software including MATLAB, Maple, Wolfram Mathematica, GNU Octave, the R programming language, and SciPy, among others—the building blocks of engineering and scientific discoveries.

In the 1990s Dongarra and his colleagues created the LINPACK benchmark to measure the progress of supercomputers, and today there is fierce international competition to be included in the Top500 list, published twice a year and listing the fastest computers in the world. Dongarra and his fellow researchers currently work with Summit, an IBM-built system at ORNL, the second-fastest computer in the world.

Dongarra is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of several organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and ACM. He holds appointments at the University of Tennessee, ORNL, and the University of Manchester. He was awarded IEEE’s Sid Fernbach Award in 2004; was the recipient of the first IEEE Medal of Excellence in Scalable Computing in 2008; was the first recipient of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics Special Interest Group on Supercomputing's award for career achievement in 2010; was the recipient of the IEEE Charles Babbage Award in 2011; and received the ACM/IEEE Ken Kennedy Award in 2013. In 2019 Dongarra received the SIAM/ACM Prize in Computational Science and Engineering, and in 2020 he received the IEEE Computer Pioneer Award for leadership in the area of high-performance mathematical software.

Dongarra will be formally presented with the Turing Award at the annual ACM Awards Banquet, which will be held this year on Saturday, June 11, at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.