Avi Wigderson Awarded 2021 Abel Prize

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Lee Sandberg

Avi Wigderson of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) was named a recipient of the 2021 Abel Prize, which he shares jointly with László Lovász—a former IAS visiting professor—of Eötvös Loránd University. They are cited by the Abel Committee “for their foundational contributions to theoretical computer science and discrete mathematics, and their leading role in shaping them into central fields of modern mathematics.”

Wigderson, currently Herbert H. Maass Professor in the School of Mathematics, leads the IAS program in Computer Science and Discrete Mathematics (CSDM), which was formally established at the Institute in 1999 with Wigderson’s appointment to the permanent Faculty.

“I am thrilled that the mathematics community has recognized with this prize the entire field of the theory of computation, which has been my academic and social home for the past four decades,” stated Wigderson. “I feel lucky to be part of this extremely dynamic community, whose fundamental goals have at the same time deep conceptual and intellectual meaning, scientific and practical motivations, with pure fun problems and brilliant collaborators to pursue them with.”

Wigderson is recognized for his prolific contributions to the major areas of computational complexity theory, including randomized computation, algorithms and optimization, circuit complexity, proof complexity, quantum computation, cryptography, and understanding of fundamental graph properties.

Avi Wigderson stands, in the tradition of Gödel and von Neumann, at the pinnacle of the theory of computation,” stated Robbert Dijkgraaf, IAS Director and Leon Levy Professor. “His work shows how some of the deepest ideas in mathematics are intimately connected to a technology that is totally transforming our society. Avi is also a convincing advocate for computation as a powerful and promising perspective on all fields of knowledge.  I am honored to congratulate Avi and László as this year’s Abel laureates and applaud their ongoing leadership and mentorship of young researchers in this fast-evolving field.”

John von Neumann, one of the Institute’s founding Professors, pioneered the Electronic Computer Project, which resulted in the construction of the world’s first stored-program computer in the basement of Fuld Hall. His colleague Kurt Gödel, one of history’s greatest logicians, had a foundational impact on Alan Turing and the study of computability. While at IAS, Gödel was the first to contemplate a version of the P vs. NP problem and to understand its importance. Wigderson has carried the torch forward into the next century, producing paradigm-shifting ideas powering the future of computing.

“From its inception, complexity theory produced challenging mathematical problems. As the theory matured and its problems were vigorously probed, many of them turned out to be fundamental in computational theory as well as in diverse mathematical areas,” said Peter Sarnak, Professor in the School of Mathematics. “Laci Lovász and Avi Wigderson have been at the center of many of the breakthroughs that have shaped these flourishing areas of theoretical computer science and mathematics, and especially their very fruitful marriage. The doors that they have opened, coupled with their leadership and generosity, have allowed many others to achieve lofty goals in these areas. It is wonderful to see them recognized with the Abel Prize.”

Wigderson’s main research area is computational complexity theory, which concerns itself with the power and limitations of algorithms. He has co-authored papers with more than 100 people, producing novel connections between mathematics and computer science. His investigations have advanced understanding of questions including: Can creativity be automated? (the P vs. NP question). Can randomness speed up computation? (the BPP vs. P question). Which distributed tasks can be computed privately and securely in adversarial environments? (the foundations of cryptography). What are the power and limitations of communication and interaction?

Such questions, while theoretical in nature, have significant real-world implications. Wigderson’s contributions to the foundations of cryptography have led to the development of protocols as complex as playing a game of poker online, without any physical means. His work on interactive proof systems, in particular the paradoxical notion of zero-knowledge proofs (viewed too impractical to ever be implemented) has recently found its way to blockchain technology and digital currencies. Digital innovations in industry, medicine, online communications, electronic commerce, and the economy, are all underpinned by algorithmic and complexity theoretic research. These ideas have also transformed scientific practice across the board, and this is only the beginning. Scholars like Wigderson and Lovász will continue to pursue these foundational questions and their potential impact.

Prior to joining the IAS Faculty, Wigderson held academic appointments at the University of California, Berkeley (1983–1984); IBM Research, San Jose (1984–1985); Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (1985–1986); Princeton University (1990–1992); and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1986–2003).

Wigderson is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize (1994); Levi L. Conant Prize (2008); Gödel Prize (2009); and Donald E. Knuth Prize (2019). He is currently a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (since 2011) and the National Academy of Sciences (since 2013).

About CSDM
Wigderson has organized and led the Computer Science and Discrete Mathematics program since its establishment in 1999, supervising more than 100 post-doctoral and Ph.D. students. The program continues to bring together the field’s preeminent researchers from academia and industry with a focus on intensive theoretical research and intellectual exchange.

About the Institute
The Institute for Advanced Study is one of the world’s foremost centers for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry. Located in Princeton, NJ, IAS is dedicated to independent study across the sciences and humanities. Founded in 1930, the Institute is devoted to advancing the frontiers of knowledge without concern for immediate application. From founding IAS Professor Albert Einstein to the foremost thinkers of today, IAS enables bold, curiosity-driven innovation to enrich society in unexpected ways.

Each year, the Institute welcomes more than 200 of the world’s most promising post-doctoral researchers and scholars who are selected and mentored by a permanent Faculty, each of whom are preeminent leaders in their fields. Among present and past Faculty and Members there have been 35 Nobel Laureates, 42 of the 60 Fields Medalists, and 21 of the 24 Abel Prize Laureates, as well as many MacArthur Fellows and Wolf Prize winners.