Remarks at the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame Banquet
Santa Clara, CA, Feb 24, 2006( slightly expanded)
I am deeply grateful for this signal honor and I am deeply humbled by seeing the list of previous inductees and of those chosen this year. In fact it is even more humbling to stand here today alongside Prof Lotfi Zadeh, who helped me greatly to get started in my career. He was already a world-famous professor in 1959, when I was fortunate that my Master’s thesis caught his attention. While I cannot pay tribute here to all those who played important roles in the journey that has brought me here this evening, still I want to dedicate most my time today to acknowledging several of them.
First, however, I should note that honors are of different types. Some I may say are inevitable, because they can be identified with particular contributions. Election to the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame is one however where there will always be several others who are equally or even more qualified. The difference is that for awards such as the present one, a significant effort has to be made to prepare a good nomination, and then several others have to take the time to write srong reference letters. So I am very happy that my nominators are here this evening: Prof Bruce Wooley, my Dept Chair, and Prof Bernie Widrow. my long time colleague. So thank you again, Bernie and Bruce.
Sadly, all my references had late conflicts, and in fact one had to cancel just this morning. but I am proud to acknowledge them today: Dr Bill Davidow, one of the most successful but low-key VCs in the valley, with whom I served on the Board of Numerical Technologies (a company based on the work of my former student, Yao-Ting Wang and my Research Associate, Buno Pati) . Next was Jim Gibbons, also a long-time colleague and generally acknowledged as second only to Fred Terman in building up the School of Engineering at Stanford, and finally, Dr Arun Netravali, President Emeritus of Bell Laboratories, perhaps the world’s greatest research laboratory ever. In fact, my career and those of numerous others have been built on two inventions that came out of Bell Labs in 1948: the transistor, developed by Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley, and Information Theory, created single-handedly by Claude Shannon.
Let me digress a bit from acknowledgments to talk briefly about these two inventions.
In this valley we are generally familiar with the remarkable developments in silicon technology, which have put incredible processing power into handheld devices, especially the various forms of cell-phones. More hidden are the improvements yielded by that other great event of 1948, Information Theory, which has given us the algorithms that underlie the recent remarkable developments in communications, data compression, cryptography, …. that enable, for just one example, the ease of music and video downloads. My point is that powerful hardware and powerful theory have to go together.
Here is a nice story as illustration, from A Matter of Fact Fairy Tale, by A A Milne, celebrated author of Winnie the Pooh and many other famous children’s books. It tells of a giant who had an urgent invitation from a friend who lived 11 miles away. So he quickly strapped on his recently-acquired magic seven-league boots (21 miles in a single step), and strode boldly out into the forest. Of course he overshot, and after several vain attempts, he had to take off the boots and glumly trudge to his goal. The problem was that this was in the days before Euclid, so our giant did not know that what he had to do was construct an isosceles triangle with a base of 11 miles and sides of 21 miles. In other words, he didn’t have a good theory to help him properly use his powerful equipment!
I bring this issue up today because I am on the theory side of this equation, where because of serious issues with our K-12 education and our support of fundamental research, we may be in danger of losing the tremendous technological edge that the remarkable US system of great research universities has given us. Time does not permit further elaboration and so I shall move on to my final acknowledgments.
First may I say that, despite all its issues, the US has been and still is the great land of opportunity, allowing waves of immigrants, including myself of course, the freedom to learn, work hard, and generally go much further in realizing their potential than would often have been possible in their home countries. In my own case, I had the extra good fortune to spend most of my nearly 50 years in the US in two of its greatest academic institutions: four at MIT and the rest at Stanford, where I have of course also benefited from the remarkable growth and environment of Silicon Valley-the reason I stand before you today!
I came to MIT in 1957, which at that time was the unchallenged leader in engineering and especially in Information Theory! Two anecdotes, by way of illustration. Till the mid-60s, promotion decisions at least in EE at MIT were based entirely on internal evaluations-they did not feel the need for outside letters! As for Information Theory, one of our professors, Peter Elias, had been away for a term, and when he returned I asked where he had been: he said, Berkeley, to teach Information Theory to the heathen! It was indeed a grand time to be at MIT, some have called it the Golden Age of Information Theory, with a wonderful group of teachers and fellow students, many of whom are now household words in many fields, from communications to computer graphics to the internet!
Then I had another great stroke of fortune , though I did not quite appreciate it at the time. Professor Terman, often called the Father of Silicon Valley, was Provost of the University and launching Stanford on its climb to greatness. Faculty recruitment was an important part of his vision. On a visit to Stanford as a potential faculty candidate, Terman spent considerable time talking to me about his vision and hopes for Stanford and finally made me an offer I could not refuse: starting as an Associate Professor at Stanford , a year and a half after my PhD from MIT. I’m relieved that that gamble seems to have worked out. As for me, at Stanford, I profited greatly from the environment that Terman and our long term chair, John Linvill, fostered at that time. As a relatively small engineering school, compared to MIT and Berkeley, Terman and Linvill focused on research, and the courses we taught grew out of the research and in turn stimulated new research by the graduate students who took these courses. No attempt was made to offer a “complete” curriculum, knowing that most learning later in life is done on a “just-in-time-basis” as the need arises. And I was fortunate in attracting an array of brilliant doctoral and postdoctoral students, numbering about a hundred,who responded well to such challenges and have built brilliant careers of their own. It is a pleasure to emphasize that today’s award is collectively theirs as well.
Finally, a few words about my native country. There I had a great high school education , especially in English and symbiotically by an emphasis on proofs in mathematics, which require logical thinking and presentation, a skill essential for communicating information of all kinds. I strongly believe dropping proofs in math impacts writing skills as well. College education in India, at my (pre-IIT) time at least, was less satisfactory, with too much learning by rote. (MIT was gloriously different, with its open-book exams and exciting research, among many other differences.)Nevertheless, the College of Engineering at Poona was gone of the top schools of the time, noted for its relatively unique special program in Telecommunications with only 10 students admitted each year, leading to great “esprit de corps”. We all recognized a great debt to our teacher, the late Professor Aiya, the founder of this program, not so much from his technical brilliance, but for his encouragement to us to develop an inquiring mind, be alert to opportunities and to face the world with confidence.
Another important intangible gift from India is its emphasis on education, on respect for teachers and elders, on strong family ties and the strength that our large extended families bring us. And I am very happy that several of my family and extended family are here today. For me the greatest gifts my country has given me have been the dedication of my parents, and my wonderful wife, Sarah, my best friend, sincerest critic and wisest counselor.