Mihalis Yannakakis, the Percy K. and Vida L. W. Hudson Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University, is among the 84 new members and 21 foreign associates just elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Established under President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, the NAS recognizes achievement in science, and NAS membership is considered one of the highest honors a scientist can receive.
Yannakakis is being recognized for fundamental contributions to theoretical computer science, particularly in algorithms and computational complexity, and applications to other areas. His research studies the inherent difficulty of computational problems, and the power and limitations of methods for solving them. For example, Yannakakis characterized the power of certain common approaches to optimization (based on linear programming), and proved that they cannot solve efficiently hard optimization problems like the famous traveling salesman problem. In the area of approximation algorithms, he defined with Christos Papadimitriou a complexity class that unified many important problems and helped explain why the research community had not been able to make progress in approximating a number of optimization problems.
“Complexity is the essence of computation and its most advanced research problem, the study of how hard computational problems can be,” says Papadimitriou. “Mihalis Yannakakis has changed in many ways, through his work during the past four decades, the way we think about complexity: He classified several problems whose complexity had been a mystery for decades, and he identified new forms and modes of complexity, crucial for understanding the difficulty of some very fundamental problems.”
In the area of database theory, Yannakakis contributed in the initiation of the study of acyclic databases and of non-two-phase locking. In the area of computer aided verification and testing, he laid the rigorous algorithmic and complexity-theoretic foundations of the field. His interests extend also to combinatorial optimization and algorithmic game theory.
For the significance, impact, and astonishing breadth of his contributions to theoretical computer science, Yannakakis was awarded the seventh Donald E. Knuth Prize in 2005. He is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering, of Academia Europaea, a Fellow of the ACM, and a Bell Labs Fellow.
Yannakakis received his PhD from Princeton University. Prior to joining Columbia in 2004, he was Head of the Computing Principles Research Department at Bell Labs and at Avaya Labs, and Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. He has served on the editorial boards of several journals, including as the past editor-in-chief of the SIAM Journal on Computing, and has chaired various conferences, including the IEEE Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science, the ACM Symposium on Theory of Computing and the ACM Symposium on Principles of Database Systems.