Artificial intelligence expert Robert Wilensky dies at 61

Robert Wilensky, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the campus’s first faculty members in artificial intelligence when the field was just taking off, has died at age 61.

Robert Wilensky (Peg Skorpinski photo)

He died at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland on Friday, March 15, of a bacterial infection.

Wilensky’s career at UC Berkeley spanned nearly 30 years, beginning in 1978 when he joined the faculty in computer science. He later was appointed a professor at the School of Information and Management Sciences (now the School of Information, or I School), which he helped form.

His many research interests included the role of memory processes in natural language processing, language analysis and production and artificial intelligence in programming languages.

One of Wilensky’s most notable contributions to the university was the UC Berkeley Digital Library Project, launched in the early years of the World Wide Web to develop techniques to make books and research materials from any library available online. The project also linked technical material together so that different layers of information can be selectively displayed and linked to other documents. This has become commonplace on the Web and in tools like Google Earth.

“The system allowed scholars and researchers to add material, and it enabled general users to easily find and retrieve information, including environmental reports, historic photos, video files, maps, databases of California flora and more,” said David Culler, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. “These are conveniences we now take for granted.”

The UC Berkeley Digital Library was launched in 1994 with a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA. Two years later, the project got a big boost when IBM donated a 6 terabyte data-storage system valued at nearly $750,000.

During Wilensky’s tenure at UC Berkeley, he served as chair of the Computer Science Division, director of the Berkeley Cognitive Science Program, director of the Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Project, and board member of the International Computer Science Institute.

“When he joined our department, he began building up a program in artificial intelligence at UC Berkeley, and he succeeded wonderfully,” said longtime colleague Richard Fateman, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of computer science and co-investigator on the Digital Library project. “He was extraordinarily successful in conceiving and executing ideas that led to infrastructure improvement for all his colleagues and contributed to the advancement of technology in programs that are widely used in document processing and Web access. He really was exceptional.”

Wilensky was also instrumental in establishing UC Berkeley’s Cognitive Science Program, helping organizing the diverse campus faculty and leading competitive grants at a time when the research field was in its infancy.

Wilensky was born March 26, 1951, in Brooklyn, New York. He received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics and his Ph.D. in computer science in 1972 and 1978, respectively, from Yale University. After graduating from Yale, Wilensky moved to California to join UC Berkeley.

He authored and co-authored many scholarly articles, conference papers, books and technical reports on artificial intelligence, planning and knowledge representation, natural language processing, and information dissemination.

Among the interesting problems he tackled was how to compute accurate reliability ratings of sellers on eBay, even in the face of possibly untruthful ratings by anonymous users. One of the last papers Wilensky co-authored presented techniques to flag users who are gaming the ratings systems, including sellers who form cliques in which they praise each other, or those who rack up high ratings for inexpensive merchandise before putting big-ticket items up for sale.

“It’s hard to think about Robert without breaking into a smile,” said John Canny, UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences. “He started out as a street-smart kid in Brooklyn, he was a math whiz and he managed to be the second kid from his school to get into an Ivy League college. He also had a genuine warmth for people and got along with everyone, except people who kept calling him ‘Bob’.”

Among the honors bestowed upon Wilensky was being named Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) in recognition for his research contributions to the areas of natural language processing and digital libraries, as well as for his outstanding leadership in computer science. In addition, he is an honorary member of the Golden Key National Honor Society, and a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence. He has also served as an ACM National Lecturer.

In 2005, Wilensky went on medical leave, but remained quite active during that time and worked to complete a new book on advanced programming techniques. Wilensky suffered a debilitating cardiac arrest in October 2006, and he retired shortly thereafter. He remained substantially disabled until his death.

He is survived by his wife of 17 years, Ann Danforth of Berkeley; his daughter Mia, 15, and son Eli, 12; his mother, Neesa Wilinsky of Brooklyn, NY; and his sister, Sandra W. Cohen of Memphis, Tenn.

The family would deeply appreciate any gifts in Wilensky’s memory made to the Wilensky Children’s Education Fund, which may be sent in care of Ann Danforth, P.O. Box 8586, 1831 Solano Ave., Berkeley, CA  94707.

Memorial donations may also be sent to a campus fellowship fund that supports graduate student research. Checks made payable to UC Berkeley can be sent to The Professor Robert Wilensky Fellowship Fund, University of California, Berkeley, College of Engineering, 201 McLaughlin Hall, MC #1722, Berkeley, CA 94720-1722. Donations to this fund may also be made online through Give to Cal. Gifts by UC Berkeley faculty, staff and students will be matched one-to-one, up to $250,000, through the Chancellor’s Challenge for Student Support.

A memorial service is being planned by colleagues in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department, and is expected to take place in May.