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Robert L. Mercer receives the 2014 ACL Lifetime Achievement Award

During its 52nd annual meeting (Baltimore, June 25 2014), the Association for Computational Linguistics has awarded the 2014 ACL Lifetime Achievement Award to Robert L. Mercer.

Arriving at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1972, Bob Mercer took a chance in signing up to work in a new research group focusing on speech recognition. Rather than emphasizing the linguistic understanding of speech, the group advocated probabilistic and information theoretic approaches. Despite their lack of linguistic background, the group in rapid succession produced breakthrough after breakthrough in various areas of computational linguistics, including few statistical approaches in speech recognition, developing some of the first large probabilistic language models, and finally pioneering the use of statistical approaches to machine translation, the problem of translating from one language to another.

Bob Mercer and colleagues forcefully demonstrated the power of big data approaches to language problems, decades before the term “big data” was invented, and at a time when computers were orders of magnitude less powerful, and big data work was difficult and slow to do, even at one of the world’s premier technology companies. But the impact of their work was revolutionary: The probabilistic approaches to computational linguistics that Bob and colleagues pioneered now dominate the field of machine translation, and provide the underpinning of many of the tools that people now regularly use, such as speech recognizers on mobile phones, context-sensitive spelling correction, and web-based machine translation systems.

The scientific impact of the work of Robert L. Mercer is clear from the citation figures, according to Google Scholar. Mercer is co-author of the following three papers in the Computational Linguistics journal, which each have had over 1500 citations.

  • Peter F. Brown, Vincent J. Della Pietra, Stephen A. Della Pietra, Robert L. Mercer, The mathematics of statistical machine translation:
    Parameter estimation
    . In: Computational Linguistics 19 (2), 1993. 3667 citations.
  • Peter F. Brown, Peter V. deSouza, Robert L. Mercer, Vincent J. Della Pietra, Jenifer C. Lai, Class-based n-gram models of natural language. In: Computational Linguistics 18 (4), 1992. 1768 citations.
  • Peter F. Brown, John Cocke, Stephen A. Della Pietra, Vincent J. Della Pietra, Fredrick Jelinek, John D. Lafferty, Robert L. Mercer, Paul S. Roossin, A Statistical Approach to Machine Translation. In: Computational Linguistics 18 (4), 1992. 1667 citations

Robert L. Mercer now is co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies.

The ACL Lifetime Achievement Award was instituted on the occasion of the 40th anniversary meeting of the Association, in 2002. The award will henceforth be presented for scientific achievement, of both theoretical and applied nature, in the field of Computational Linguistics, considering the originality, depth, breadth and impact of the entire body of the nominees' work. The award is a crystal trophy, and the recipient is invited to give a 45-minute speech on his views on the development of Computational Linguistics at the annual meeting. The speech is introduced by the announcement of the award, which is confidential until then.

Previous winners of the award are Jerry Hobbs (2013), Charles Fillmore (2012), Eugene Charniak (2011), William A. Woods (2010), Fred Jelinek (2009), Yorick Wilks (2008), Lauri Karttunen (2007), Eva Hajicova (2006), Martin Kay (2005), Karen Sparck Jones (2004), Makoto Nagao (2003), Aravind Joshi (2002)