2020 Great Immigrants Recipient

Judea Pearl
Computer Scientist and Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
Born in:
Israel

Judea Pearl was born in 1936 into a Jewish family from Poland in the town of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, which was under British mandate at the time. Pearl credits his interest in science to growing up in the newly independent state of Israel, where his generation was taught by “great scientists” who had been forced to flee Nazi Germany and who saw their young students as “the embodiment of their academic and scientific dreams.” Following Pearl’s army service, he joined a kibbutz, but left the agrarian communal life to study electrical engineering at the Technion, Israel’s prestigious technical institute.

Pearl moved to the United States in 1960. Arriving with just $56 in his pocket, he was determined to pursue his graduate school studies. To cover his tuition, Pearl started working on computer memory at the RCA David Sarnoff Research Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey. It was the early days of computer research. He received a master’s degree in physics from Rutgers University and a PhD from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. (Scientists would later use the term “Pearl vortex” to refer to the type of superconducting current that was first described by Pearl when he was a graduate student.) After completing his studies, Pearl worked on superconductive parametric and storage devices at RCA Laboratories and at the California-based Electronic Memories, Inc.

When the development of large-scale semiconductor memories left Pearl jobless, he decided to pursue his other passion, artificial intelligence, which he calls “a metaphor for capturing human intuition.” He joined the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1970. As professor of computer science and statistics, director of the Cognitive Systems Laboratory, and, since his retirement in 1994, emeritus professor of computer science at UCLA, he published an extensive body of work, including the landmark books Heuristics (1984), Probabilistic Reasoning in Intelligent Systems (1988), and Causality (2000; 2009).

Pearl is known for his transformative contributions to artificial intelligence, human reasoning, and the philosophy of science. His work on probability and causality has had an impact on fields as varied as medicine and political science, and is credited, for example, with making possible the voice recognition devices that are widely used today. A member of the National Academy of Engineering and a founding fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, Pearl has won numerous prizes, including the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science. In 2011, Pearl was awarded the Turing Award, considered the Nobel Prize of the computing world, “for his fundamental contributions to artificial intelligence through the development of a calculus for probabilistic and causal reasoning.”

Pearl is also the president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which preserves the legacy of his son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2012. The foundation aims to promote cross-cultural dialogue and understanding, counter intolerance, support responsible journalism, and inspire unity through music worldwide.