David Van Horn Receives Most Influential Paper Award at ICFP 2020

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Associate professor David Van Horn recently received the Most Influential Paper award at the 25th ACM SIGPLAN International Conference on Functional Programming (ICFP),  for his paper titled “Abstracting Abstract Machines.”

Coauthored with Matt Might, director of the Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the paper discusses a  model of a computer system constructed to allow a detailed and precise analysis of how the computer system works.

Van Horn’s paper, published in 2010, describes a derivational approach to abstract interpretation that yields novel and transparently sound static analyses when applied to well-established abstract machines.

In recognizing the work the award citation stated: This paper presents a way to systematically go from a high-level program semantics to a nondeterministic finite-state machine that can be implemented both efficiently and straightforwardly. It also shows how this works for a wide variety of language constructs such as mutable state, first-class continuations and laziness, and how careful choices lead to analyses with tunable computational complexity.”

The research work has influenced static analyses for Erlang, JavaScript and other languages, and many researchers who work on sound static analyses.

“I am humbled to win this award,” said Van Horn. “ICFP has been my home conference since the beginning of my career, so to have a paper recognized by the community in this way is a real honor and highlight.” In his view, “the paper's main accomplishment was being able to phrase the problem in a way that a broader community of programming language researchers could understand.”  The paper has had an impact on a number of more junior researchers. 

Ian Sweet, a former undergraduate at UMD who is now completing his PhD said, “Professor Van Horn first explained Abstracting Abstract Machines to me when I was an undergraduate and that helped to convince me that I could understand and contribute to research.” 

Beyond the technical contributions, Van Horn is most proud of this kind of impact, saying “The work made it a little bit easier for people to understand what was going on, and in doing so, it drew in more bright and creative people to the field.”

The ICFP is an annual programming language conference which  provides a platform for researchers and developers to hear about the latest work on the design, implementations and uses of functional programming. It covers the entire spectrum of work, from practice to theory, including its peripheries.

In addition to being a professor of computer science, Van Horn holds a joint appointment in the  University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.


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