October 15, 2010

Esteemed computer science prof dies

One of the most highly regarded professors in the Computer Science and Statistics departments, speech recognition expert Partha Niyogi passed away two weeks ago at the age of 43.

Niyogi died from brain cancer at home in Hyde Park on October 1.

Niyogi was slated to begin his tenure as chairman of the Computer Science department last year when the diagnosis forced the department to seek another leader.

A computer science and statistics professor, Niyogi was remembered by his colleagues as a brilliant scholar and warm instructor.

“The combination of his tremendous power as a researcher and his wisdom and human warmth, this was something that made him one of the most highly respected and beloved people in the department,” said Laszlo Babai, a computer science professor who knew Niyogi for the ten years he had worked at the University of Chicago.

“He was a great guy,” said professor Stuart Kurtz, whose office is next door to Niyogi’s. “He was not a typical Chicago faculty, he was a cut above.”

Starting with an interest in acoustics—Kurtz recalled Niyogi’s bachelor’s thesis, in which he created computer software that recognized the beats of a tabla drum—Niyogi developed a vast repertoire of scientific skills, ranging from mathematical analysis to an ability to understand scientific problems in the abstract.

Niyogi was “not applying known schemes to known models,” Babai said. “He was setting up new models and applying the right kind of techniques to them. In the course of this, he also made some important contributions to theoretical computer science."

Niyogi is the author of two books, The Informational Complexity of Learning: Perspectives on Neural Networks and Generative Grammar and The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution, and wrote or co-wrote dozens of articles in a number of fields, including machine learning, speech recognition, and language evolution.

He worked in different fields, including statistics, linguistics, and computer science. But his research was far-reaching, Babai said. “In a way, he was a one-person intellectual center for half of the University,” said Babai, noting that his description was only a slight overstatement. “His ability to combine different disciplines was remarkable.”

That interdisciplinary approach allowed Niyogi to break down his “big picture” vision of achieving artificial intelligence into smaller tasks, Babai said.

Babai called it “a research project for a long period of time which promises to really change how we view interaction between humans and artificial agents,” and Niyogi gave the department a taste of it in an April lecture. A Computer Science department obituary said it “weav[ed] together ongoing research in multiple broad areas in a monumental tapestry that left the audience awestruck.”

An important part of his work was in understanding how to simplify complex sets of data. “One of his major accomplishments was understanding high-dimensional data sets by finding that the data actually lie on or near a lower dimensional surface,” Babai said in an e-mail—work that would have applications in many branches of science.

“He was a leader of the department, a great trainer of graduate students, someone who was very calm, very reflective, respected tremendously throughout the community,” Kurtz said.

Those qualities made him so popular he was selected to chair the Department in 2009.

“Shortly before his illness struck [about 15 months ago],” Babai said, “the question was raised of who should be the next chairperson of the department. He was the unanimous and clear choice of almost everybody in the department. Simply, people trusted him, which is no small thing in a department with various groups and people working on different things.”

But a week later Niyogi was diagnosed with cancer.

“It was all set, it was about to happen,” current chair John Goldsmith said. “It went through the whole procedure.” But following the diagnosis, Goldsmith, formerly the chair of the Linguistics Department, stepped in.

“It was such a tragic situation,” he said. “I stepped in to become the interim chairman that summer...and then I went on to be chairman out of really a friendship for him as much as anything else.”

Niyogi joined the faculty in 2000 after working at Bell Laboratories. He received his bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology and two postgraduate degrees from MIT.

Chair of the Computer Science Department in 2000, Kurtz recalled why he hired Niyogi: “He was great, an outstanding scholar. He had done groundbreaking work in speech recognition, in statistical learning theory, he came recommended by some outstanding senior scientists.”

Kurtz noted that he was promoted relatively quickly—he received an endowed chair in 2009.

“Somehow, I think, everybody felt close to him. It was kind of a magic quality,” Babai said. “It’s an astounding loss.”

Niyogi is survived by a wife and two children. There will be a service held in his honor on October 30 in Bond Chapel.

-Additional reporting by Hans Glick