Remembering Fred Jelinek

September 18, 2010

Posted by Ciprian Chelba, Research Team

It is with great sadness that we note the passing of Fred Jelinek, teacher and colleague to many of us here at Google. His seminal contributions to statistical modeling of speech and language influenced not only us, but many more members of the research community.

Several of us at Google remember Fred:

Ciprian Chelba:
Fred was my thesis advisor at CLSP. My ten years of work in the field after graduation led me to increasingly appreciate the values that Fred instilled by personal example: work on the hard problem because it simply cannot be avoided, bring fundamental and original contributions that steer clear of incrementalism, exercise your creativity despite the risks entailed, and pursue your ideas with determination.

I recently heard a comment from a colleague, “A natural born leader is someone you follow even if only out of curiosity.” I immediately thought of Fred. Working with him marked a turning point in my life, and his influential role will be remembered.

Bob Moore:
I first met Fred Jelinek in 1984 at an IBM-sponsored workshop on natural-language processing. Fred's talk was my first exposure to the application of statistical ideas to language, and about the only thing I understood was the basic idea of N-gram language modeling: estimate the probability of the next word in a sequence based on a small fixed number of immediately preceding words. At the time, I was so steeped in the tradition of linguistically-based formal grammars that I was sure Fred's approach could not possibly be useful.

Starting about five years later, however, I began to interact with Fred often at speech and language technology meetings organized by DARPA, as well as events affiliated with the Association for Computational Linguistics. Gradually, I (along with much of the computational linguistics community) began to understand and appreciate the statistical approach to language technology that Fred and his colleagues were developing, to the point that it now dominates the field of computational linguistics, including my own research. The importance of Fred's technical contributions and visionary leadership in bringing about this revolution in language technology cannot be overstated. The field is greatly diminished by his passing.

Fernando Pereira:
I met Fred first at a DARPA-organized workshop where one of the main topics was how to put natural language processing research on a more empirical, data-driven path. Fred was leading the charge for the move, drawing from his successes in speech recognition. Although I had already started exploring those ideas, I was not fully convinced by Fred’s vision. Nevertheless, Fred’s program raised many interesting research questions, and I could not resist some of them. Working on search for speech recognition at AT&T, I was part of the small team that invented the finite-state transducer representation of recognition models. I gave what I think was the first public talk on the approach at a workshop session that Fred chaired. It was Fred’s turn to be skeptical, and we had a spirited exchange in the discussion period. At the time, I was disappointed that I had failed to interest Fred in the work, but later I was delighted when Fred became a strong supporter of our work after a JHU Summer workshop where Michael Riley led the use of our software tools in successful experiments with a team of JHU researchers and students. Indeed, in hindsight, Fred was right to be skeptical before we had empirical validation for the approach, and his strong support when the results started coming in was thus much more meaningful and gratifying. Through these experiences and much more, I came to respect immensely Fred’s pioneer spirit, vision, and sharp mind. Many of my most successful projects benefited directly or indirectly from his ideas, his criticism, and his building of thriving institutions, from CLSP to links with the research team at Charles University in Prague. I saw Fred last at ACL in Uppsala. He was in great form, and we had a good discussion on funding for the summer workshops. I am very sad that he will not be with us to continue these conversations.

Shankar Kumar:
Fred was my academic advisor at CLSP/JHU and I interacted with him throughout my Ph.D. program. I had the privilege of having him on my thesis committee. My very first exposure to research in speech and NLP was through an independent study that I did under him. A few years later, I was his teaching assistant for the speech recognition class. Fred's energy and passion for research made a strong impression on me back then and continues to influence my work to this day. I remember Fred carefully writing up his ideas and sending them out as a starting point to our discussions. While I found this curiously amusing at the time, I now think this was his unique approach to ensure clarity of thought and to steer the discussion without distractions. Fred's enthusiasm for learning new concepts was infectious! I attended several classes and guest lectures with him - graphical models, NLP, and many more. His insightful questions and his active participation in each one of these classes made them memorable for me. He epitomized what a life-long learner should be. I will always recall Fred's advice on sharing credit generously. In his own words, "The contribution of a research paper does not get divided by the number of authors". By his passing, we have lost a role model who dedicated his life to research and whose contributions will continue to impact and shape the field for years to come.

Michael Riley:
I got to know Fred pretty well having attended two of the CLSP six-week summer workshops, working on a few joint grants, and visiting CLSP in between. If there is a ‘father of speech recognition’, its got to be Fred Jelinek - he led the IBM team that invented and popularized many of the key methods used today. His intellect, wide knowledge, and force of will served him well later as the leader of the JHU Center for Language and Speech Processing - a sort of academic hearth where countless speech/NLP researchers and students interacted over the years in seminars and workshops. I was impressed that at an age when many retired and after which most of his IBM colleagues had gone into (very lucrative) financial engineering, he remained a vigorous, leading academic. Fernando mentioned the initial skepticism he had for our work on weighted FSTs for ASR. Some years later though I heard that he praised the work to my lab director, Larry Rabiner, on a plane ride that likely helped my promotion shortly thereafter. And no discussion of Fred would be complete without a mention of his inimitable humor, delivered in that loud Czech-accented voice:
Riley [at workshop planning meeting]: “Could they hold the summer workshop in some nicer place than Baltimore to help attract people?”
Fred: “Riley, we’ll hold it in Rome next year and get better people than you!”

Seminar presenter: [fumbling with Windows configuration for minutes].
Fred [very loud]: “How long do we have to endure this high-tech torture?”

The website of The Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Language and Speech Processing links to Fred’s own descriptions of his life and technical achievements.