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Engineering 'Medal of Honor' for Prof. Thomas Kailath

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As he stands on the threshold of his 50th year in America, Thomas Kailath, Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, Emeritus, of Stanford University, is being recognized with the Medal of Honor, the highest award of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a leading professional association for the advancement of technology.

Kailath will receive the gold medal and $50,000 prize at an honors ceremony next June in Philadelphia. In an IEEE announcement today, the society recognized Kailath for his "exceptional development of powerful algorithms in the fields of communications, computing, control and signal processing."

"Many of us have met individuals who have made deep contributions in specific technical fields, or had a major impact on industry, or had a major impact on their academic discipline or educated the leaders of the future," says Jim Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering. "Tom is essentially unique in that he has done all of these things at the very highest levels."

Time and again, Kailath, who has been at Stanford since 1962, has echoed the words of Dr Patricia Donahoe, a leading cancer researcher: “Substantive accomplishments often come from the people you influence. And if you influence them in the right way, you can accomplish far more than if you did it yourself.”

Kailath is quick to admit: “I have had the great good fortune to have had a spectacular array of excellent students.” But that’s only because in the course of his 44 years at Stanford he has successfully created a “rigorous intellectual climate” at the interface of engineering and mathematics.

How did he accomplish this? As he once explained: “At Stanford I tried to have a generous flow of visitors, staying from a week to a month to a year, and also mini- workshops, bringing people here who were leaders in fields that we were attempting to enter, or just very smart people who could lead us into new directions.” He adds: “I also strongly believe in having postdocs, of whom I have had nearly 40, sometimes 2 or 3 at the same time, esp. when we were entering new areas.”

Kailath’s first Ph.D student, Piet Schalkwijk from Holland, is said to have complained that he was made to rewrite his thesis 6 times! In response Kailath says: “That’s an exaggeration. After all he graduated in two years after his Master’s degree. Almost all my students graduated within 3-4 years from their Master’s degrees.”

Kailath explains: “I followed the MIT tradition in which professors worked on their own research while guiding doctoral students along different and separate paths. However the work on feedback communications by my first student led to the need for recursive estimation algorithms that had been developed in control theory. It was more efficient to let my graduate students teach me this, and I realized that joining forces with them on research was more valuable for everyone.”

“It's been a joy to have worked in so many different fields with a stellar collection of more than seventy doctoral students and more than thirty postdoctoral scholars, many of whom are now leading figures in their field s” says Kailath. “These efforts have also gained my family and myself a wide range of wonderful friends from around the world.”

Being at Stanford also meant that Kailath had a ringside view of happenings in Silicon Valley over the past 45 years. He says it’s been “an inspiration and a thrill.” He observes: “There's a tremendously innovative and competitive atmosphere here. Everywhere there are people who are ready to seize or make opportunities to do something better or faster, or to do something completely new.”

Earlier this year, when he was inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame, Kailath made some points that Indian-Americans might well ponder.

“I have been fortunate in attracting an array of brilliant doctoral and postdoctoral students, who responded well to challenges and have built brilliant careers of their own. I would like to emphasize that today’s award is collectively theirs as well,” Kailath noted. But then he also went on to observe: “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.”

Kailath admitted that “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 have been possible in their home countries.” He added: “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: MIT and Stanford.”

Recalling his early years in Pune, Kailath, whose parents are from Kerala, said: “There I had a great high school education, especially in English and symbiotically by an emphasis on proofs in mathematics (I had a really great teacher), which require logical thinking and presentation, a skill essential for communicating information of all kinds. 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 one 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….. But for me the greatest gift my country has given me has been my wonderful wife, Sarah, my best friend, sincerest critic and wisest counselor."


According to an assessment by David Orenstein at the Stanford School of Engineering, Kailath has covered a lot of ground - taking on a new field about once a decade, and quickly reaching frontiers in each of them - but he has always carried the banner of mathematical engineering. This approach seeks to solve practical problems by first making a simplified mathematical model, finding exact or approximate mathematical solutions and then modifying them to work in the physical world. Kailath's preference for the abstract simplicity of mathematical solutions has nevertheless always had an engineer's practical bent. "Pure math, of which I have done some, doesn't interest me for very long," he said. "I like the math to solve a problem that has some potential for application."

He has been honored by mathematicians as well.

One of the most recent contributions of his research group is a widely used advance in the way chip manufacturers use light to make circuit patterns on silicon wafers. To make the patterns, manufacturers shine high frequency light through a stencil, or mask, onto light-sensitive chemicals on the wafer. The patterns must be exquisitely precise, but there are always imperfections in the optics that project the light. But using a combination of ideas and techniques from communication systems and signal processing, Kailath and his students figured out how the masks could be systematically “pre-distorted” to compensate for these limitations and produce the desired patterns despite them. “This is mathematically a highly nonlinear inverse problem,” he says. “You know what you want on the wafer, you know the characteristics of the light source and the lens system, and you have to find what kind of mask will do the job.” Kailath co-founded a company, Numerical Technologies (now part of Synopsys), to see the math through to practical application for the semiconductor industry.

Kailath’s devotion to mathematics was hardly apparent when he was growing up in Pune, India in the 1940s. He was a strong student but mostly for his language skills. When he got to high school his math teacher simply assumed that his overall high marks meant proficiency in math. To meet those expectations, Kailath crammed and drilled until he had developed such a fluency with math that he actually came to appreciate it.

This feeling was enhanced when in 1949, he read an article in Popular Science about the then emerging field of information theory, developed by the legendary engineer and mathematician (and IEEE Medal of Honor recipient), Claude Shannon. This fascination ultimately led Kailath to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Shannon was a professor, for his graduate studies in the late fifties. He says he feels lucky to have been there when MIT was at the center of a “golden age” of communication and information theory. Among the many awards he has won, Kailath is particularly happy that the IEEE Shannon Award is one.

He received his Sc.D. from MIT in 1961. Less than two years later, after a stay at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in a group where pioneering contributions were made in digital communications, Kailath was recruited by Stanford’s then provost, Fred Terman, to join Stanford as an associate professor of electrical engineering. He became a full professor in 1968 and is currently Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, emeritus.

As a professor, Kailath has always been close to his students both in research and teaching. He has mentored more than a 100 doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers. Two of them, John Cioffi and Arogyaswami Paulraj, have since joined him as colleagues at Stanford and as members of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

“Speaking as one of his many PhD advisees over the years but I suspect for most, I would say Tom Kailath is more of a father than just an advisor,” says Cioffi. “He continues to look after the interests of his former students carefully, decades after they've graduated. His group just has to have been more successful than any academic group in electrical engineering history. That is a tremendous credit to Tom, his energy, his intelligence, and his encouragement.”

As Kailath would move into new areas he would select students and postdocs with whom he could learn as well as teach. By now, the broad swath of electrical engineering that he has covered has brought him more than a hefty list of publications and honors. “It has given me a huge number of friends in many, many different fields,” he says. Of course, with the recent news of the IEEE Medal of Honor, this has meant sending thank you notes to friends all over the world.

According to Orenstein, Kailath is like an intellectual knight whose quests have taken him to the fore of many electrical engineering fields, with mathematics as his sword. Now, for vanquishing some of his discipline’s greatest challenges, Kailath is receiving the Medal of Honor, the highest award of the IEEE, the world’s foremost electrical engineering group.


IEEE also announced this week that Narayana N.R. Murthy, chairman and chief mentor of Bangalore-based Infosys Technologies Ltd., would receive the Ernst Weber Engineering Leadership Recognition honor, among 12 medals, a service award and leadership recognition award to be presented in June.

Murthy, who founded Infosys with six other software professionals in 1981 and served as chief executive for more than 20 years, is being recognized for his "pioneering role in the globalization of information technology software and services, and leadership in establishing global business governance practices in India."

Last modified 1/17/2013 by Nishchal Nadhamuni