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In memoriam: David Waltz, 68

By Ben Federlin

Section: News

April 5, 2012

Former computer science Professor David Waltz died March 22 of brain cancer. He was 68.

Professor Waltz had been a member of the faculty at Brandeis for nine years before working at Columbia University. Waltz was a leading member of the computer science industry. In addition to his impressive accomplishments in the field of computer science, Waltz also was instrumental in establishing the Volen National Center for Complex Systems here at Brandeis, having been previously involved in the creation of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois. He later helped create the Center for Computational learning systems at Columbia where he served as director for several years.

Waltz was especially influential in the development of technology used for the creation of Internet search engines, including Yahoo and Google. His contributions to the field of computer science are quite numerous and include a method of “case-based” reasoning that allows computers to recognize various elements of text or sound better as well as a number of contributions to the development of artificial intelligence.

Professor Jordan Pollack (COSI), computer science department chair, was Waltz’s student at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and worked with him for many years.

“I went to University of Illinois for grad school in Computer Science in fall 1980, and joined up with Dave Waltz’s AI research group,” Pollack wrote to The Hoot. “The focus of the lab was in natural language processing, which at that time meant building English-like interfaces to large databases owned by the sponsor, in this case, the Navy. Dave had become interested in the new field of cognitive science, which had just had its first conference, and a major funding boost from the Sloan Foundation. He started collaborating with professors and attracting students from Psychology and Linguistics who became my closest friends.

“It was a very interdisciplinary moment, and we became interested in the mental limits on humans during sentence understanding, combining computation with psycholinguistics. We built a model to simulate the feeling when you read ambiguous and garden-path sentences like ‘the doctor practiced on Henry’s organ’ and ‘the hunter shot some bucks at a casino’ using parallel processes known as spreading activation and lateral inhibition, which eventually became a well-cited paper in the new field of neural networks and part of my PhD thesis.”

Pollack described his personal relationship with Waltz as one that superseded that typical of a student and teacher. “David had very few formal barriers between himself and his PhD students,” Pollack said. “My wife and I felt a part of his family, and enjoyed the opportunity to socialize with Dave and Bonnie and their faculty friends.”

Waltz came to teach at Brandeis while he simultaneously pursued his career at a local startup company. “Dave left Urbana in 1984 to join a startup called Thinking Machines, and secured a part-time faculty job helping to expand the Computer Science department at Brandeis and its new PhD program. I first visited Brandeis as an invited speaker at the Volen Center retreat in 1993, just before the building was completed, Thinking Machines folded, and he moved to New Jersey. After working in Big 10 universities, I fell in love with the more personal scale of Brandeis and moved here when a faculty position opened in 1994.”

Waltz had been battling brain cancer for some time. He passed away at the University Medical Center at Princeton. Pollack and the computer science department faculty have two separate projects in mind to honor Waltz.

“Dave’s death last week hit me very hard, even though I knew he had inoperable brain cancer for a year. I am working on a couple of projects to honor him for his work and his time at Brandeis. One project is an academic symposium featuring speakers from the six phases of Dave Waltz’s career. I expect to hold it on campus in late September,” Pollack wrote. “The second is a memorial fundraising project which is in the earliest stages of development.”

Waltz was survived by his wife, Bonnie; his two children, Vanessa and Jeremy; and one granddaughter.

Corrections: Due to reporting errors, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Waltz worked at Princeton University. He worked at a research laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey. The article also incorrectly referred to Waltz as chairman of the Computer Science department and the timeline for when he and Pollack came to Brandeis. We regret the errors.

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