Computer Sciences Colloquium - Actual Causality: A Survey

Joe Halpern​

08 April 2018, 11:00 
Schreiber Building, Room 006 
Computer Sciences Colloquium



What does it mean that an event C ``actually caused'' event E?

The problem of defining actual causation goes beyond mere philosophical speculation.  For example, in many legal arguments, it is precisely what needs to be established in order to determine responsibility.  (What exactly was the actual cause of the car accident or the medical problem?) The philosophy literature has been struggling with the problem of defining causality since the days of Hume, in the 1700s.  Many of the definitions have been couched in terms of counterfactuals.  (C is a cause of E if, had C not happened, then E would not have happened.) In 2001, Judea Pearl and I introduced a new definition of actual cause, using Pearl's notion of structural equations to model counterfactuals.

The definition has been revised twice since then, extended to deal with notions like "responsibility" and "blame", and applied in databases and program verification.  I survey the last 15 years of work here, including joint work with Judea Pearl, Hana Chockler, and Chris Hitchcock.  The talk will be completely self-contained.






Joseph Halpern received a B.Sc. in mathematics from the University of Toronto in 1975 and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard in 1981.  In between, he spent two years as the head of the Mathematics Department at Bawku Secondary School, in Ghana. After a year as a visiting scientist at MIT, he joined the IBM Almaden Research Center in 1982, where he remained until 1996, also serving as a consulting professor at Stanford. In 1996, he joined the CS Department at Cornell, and was department chair 2010-14.

Halpern's major research interests are in reasoning about knowledge and uncertainty, security, distributed computation, decision theory, and game theory.  Together with his former student, Yoram Moses, he pioneered the approach of applying reasoning about knowledge to analyzing distributed protocols and multi-agent systems.  He has coauthored 5 patents, three books ("Reasoning About Knowledge", "Reasoning about Uncertainty", and "Actual Causality"), and over 360 technical publications.

Halpern is a Fellow of AAAI, AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, ACM, IEEE, the Game Theory Society, and SEAT (Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory). Among other awards, he received the Kampe de Feriet Award in 2016, the ACM SIGART Autonomous Agents Research Award in 2011, the Dijkstra Prize in 2009, the ACM/AAAI Newell Award in 2008, the Godel Prize in 1997, was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2001-02, and a Fulbright Fellow in 2001-02 and 2009-10.  Two of his papers have won best-paper prizes at IJCAI (1985 and 1991), and another two received best-paper awards at the Knowledge Representation and Reasoning Conference (2006 and 2012).  He was editor-in-chief of the Journal of the ACM (1997-2003) and has been program chair of a number of conferences, including the Symposium on Theory in Computing (STOC), Logic in Computer Science (LICS), Uncertainty in AI (UAI), Principles of Distributed  Computing (PODC), and Theoretical Aspects of Rationality and Knowledge (TARK).  He started and continues to be the administrator of CoRR, the computer science section of arxiv.

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