Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering


Memorial Service Friday, November 5, 2010

The Fred Jelinek Fellowship

Fred's life in his own words

Fred's work in his own words

A Celebration of the Life of Fred Jelinek

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Center for Language and Speech Processing

Fred Jelinek: 1932 - 2010

(Adapted from the Johns Hopkins Gazette) Frederick Jelinek, a Johns Hopkins University faculty member whose research laid the foundation for modern speech recognition and text translation technology, died on Sept. 14 while working at the Homewood campus. He was 77.

Fred JelinekDuring 21 years at IBM Research and nearly two decades at Johns Hopkins, Jelinek pioneered the statistical methods that enable modern computers to “understand,’’ transcribe and translate written and spoken language. In recognition of this work, he was inducted in 2006 into the National Academy of Engineering. At Johns Hopkins, which he joined in 1993, Jelinek was the Julian S. Smith Professor of Electrical Engineering and director of the Center for Language and Speech Processing. The center is based in what was then known as the Computational Science and Engineering Building, where Jelinek died while concluding his workday. The cause of death was not immediately determined.

“He envisioned applying the mathematics of probability to the problem of processing speech and language,” said Sanjeev Khudanpur, a Johns Hopkins associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who worked with Jelinek. “This revolutionized the field. Fifty years ago, no one thought that was possible. Today, it’s the dominant paradigm.

“Initially,” Khudanpur added, “Fred’s ideas generated some hostile reviews, owing to philosophical differences, but ultimately his approach prevailed and became mainstream. Over the past 10 years or so, he received lifetime achievement awards, one after another, from diverse professional societies.”

The following day, faculty members and friends of the Whiting School of Engineering gathered for a previously scheduled ceremony during which the building was renamed Hackerman Hall, in honor of university benefactor Willard Hackerman. Nick Jones, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School, asked the attendees to observe a moment of silence to pay tribute to Jelinek, saying that he was “a respected colleague and will be greatly missed.”

“I think that this afternoon, as we consider the significance of this building and what it means to our community, it is important to note that a scholar of Fred’s distinction resided here,” Jones said. “It is a testament to what this building is about that a world-renowned researcher such as Fred thrived, mentored, taught and created knowledge here.”

Speaking later with The Gazette, another Johns Hopkins colleague, Jason Eisner, recalled Jelinek as lively, witty, cultured and intellectually curious. “He was a real straight shooter—no politics, no varnish—and a man of his word,” Eisner, an associate professor of computer science, said. “He was known for his strong personality, yet he was always ready to acknowledge counterarguments or concede points, and he was generous in his praise.”

Jelinek was born near Prague in what is now the Czech Republic. In 2001, when he accepted an honorary doctorate from Charles University in Prague, Jelinek recalled his difficult childhood.

“When I completed second grade,” he told the audience, “a Nazi edict prevented us Jews from further school attendance. We were taught the subjects of the third and fourth [grades] privately in small, constantly changing groups. My classmates as well as my teachers were being progressively sent to various concentration camps. … Beginning with the summer of ’42, all instruction was forbidden.”

During the Nazi occupation, Jelinek’s physician father died of typhoid in the Terezin concentration camp. Fearing that the Communist regime would not allow her son to advance his education, Jelinek’s mother emigrated after the war to New York with him and his sister.

Engineering was not Jelinek’s first career choice. “My mother wished for me to become a physician, just like my father,” he said in his 2001 speech. “My parents planned to have me educated in one of England’s famous public schools. To teach me German, they e ngaged a German governess. I myself wanted to be a lawyer, defender of the unjustly accused. But my career is the result of political circumstances, academic possibilities and lucky accidents.”

In New York, Jelinek discovered that an engineering degree could be obtained in four years, while becoming a lawyer would require seven. He also worried that his foreign accent would hamper his success in the courtroom. “So I took up electrical engineering in the Evening Session of the City College of New York, having shown no previous inclination toward that profession,” he said.

Eventually, he succeeded well enough in his studies to gain acceptance to MIT, where he earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering. “Fortunately,” he said, “to electrical engineering there belonged a discipline whose aim was not the construction of physical systems: the theory of information.”

After obtaining his doctorate in 1962, Jelinek joined the faculty of Cornell University, where he continued to study information theory. A decade later, he applied for a summer position at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center. Soon he was appointed to head the center’s large Continuous Speech Recognition group on a full-time basis.

“Our group completely revolutionized the standard approach to speech recognition,” Jelinek said in his 2001 speech. “This was made easy by the fact that practically none of us was educated in any subject related to speech. Those who contributed most had their doctorates in information theory or physics. Their creativity, determination, originality and courage to risk was what accounted for our success.”

Jelinek’s son, William Jelinek, said his father “was extremely proud of the speech recognition group he led at IBM for 21 years. When he retired from IBM in 1993, he wanted to continue to do research, and Johns Hopkins gave him the opportunity when the school asked him to direct the Center for Language and Speech Processing there.”

At Johns Hopkins, his colleagues said, Jelinek was able to build upon his groundbreaking work at IBM and share it with students and other faculty members. He led highly regarded summer workshops that brought together speech and language processing researchers from industry, government and academia, along with undergraduate and graduate students. “These workshops helped a lot of people get their start in this field and led to many great research collaborations,” said Eisner, the computer science professor.

A funeral service for Jelinek was held Frid ay at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville, Md. William Jelinik said that the family plans to conduct memorials and remembrances in the coming months in Baltimore, New York and Prague to allow colleagues and friends to celebrate his father’s life.

In addition to his son, of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., Frederick Jelinek is survived by his wife, Milena Jelinek, a Czech filmmaker who teaches screenwriting at Columbia University; his daughter, Hannah Sarbin, of Larchmont, N.Y.; his sister, Susan Abramowitz, of Montreal, Canada; his half-sister, Jirina Hlavac, of Zurich; and grandchildren Alex Sarbin, Sophie Jelinek and Benjamin Jelinek.

Read More: 

Obituary in the IEEE Information Theory Society Newsletter

Obituary in the LA Times

Dedication of the ACL 2011 Proceedings Volume

Center for Language and Speech Processing: Frederick Jelinek’s Web Page

The Washington Post: Dr. Frederick Jelinek, computer speech-recognition specialist, dies in Baltimore

Google Research Blog: Remembering Fred Jelinek

Facebook: In Memory of Fred Jelinek

The New York Times: Frederick Jelinek, Who Gave Machines the Key to Human Speech, Dies at 77

IEEE Signal Processing Society: Article by Steve Young

Computational Linguistics: Obituary by Mark Liberman

Remembrances of Fred Jelinek

Guest Book:

November 04, 2010, from Nagendra Kumar Goel:

I was a Ph.D. student at the Johns Hopkins University, when Fred joined as the head of CLSP. My advisor had played an important role in setting up the Center, and as his student, I was very much interested in “speech”. Although I had finished my course requirements, I sat through his courses on statistical methods, and learned a lot. I would always remember him
for the education I got from him.

October 29, 2010, from Daniel Costello, University of Notre Dame:

I have very fond memories of Fred from his early Information Theory days, days which he glides over in the posted links with almost no comment.  But these were very productive times!  Stack sequential decoding (the ZJ algorithm), long a staple in deep space communication, bootstrap hybrid decoding, neglected by many but a precursor to the development of turbo codes some 25 years later, and the BCJR algorithm, early work with his IBM colleagues, which now forms the core of industry standard turbo decoders.

I spent the summer of 1971 visiting Fred at Cornell to work on bootstrap decoding.  During that summer, he learned that a NASA grant was not going to be renewed.  (NASA had made the unfortunate decision to cancel all their outstanding coding contracts at that time.)  Those of you that knew Fred can imagine his reaction!  But perhaps this was “destiny taking a hand”.  The following year, without his NASA summer support, found him beginning his long association with IBM and his incredibly fruitful venture into speech recognition research.

Fred was a true giant of the Information Theory research.  It was an honor to have worked with him.  Regards and condolences to his wife Milena and their family.

October 27, 2010, from Alaine S. Major:

In 1979, after 6 months at IBM Research, I received a promotion (as a secretary) to one of the busiest groups at Watson that included robotics and speech recognition. I reported to the 3rd level manager in the group.  My “sister secretaries” warned me that this group would “eat me alive” and that there were “notorious personalities” in the group.  Sounded OK to me; I’ve never been afraid of anyone and I could stand up for myself. My manager immediately decided my first day to take me around to meet the senior managers.  As we traveled down aisle 15 I heard a loud voice with an accent yelling at someone on the phone.  I thought we’d pass by, but instead we stopped in full view of the bushy-haired man with his feet on his desk who turned around, saw us and excused himself from his listener on the other end.  My mgr began the obligatory, Fred, this is Alaine our new secretary & as I walked into his office on the wall was a large poster of The Arnolfini Marriage and I just blurted out “Jan van Eyck!”  Fred’s whole you’ve-just-interrupted-me demeanor disappeared, he stood up, shook my hand and said, “so you like van Eyck?”  I answered that I hadn’t been exposed to much in the timeframe of Art History 101, but the poster was so large I asked, “can you see him in the mirror?”  And Fred showed me where and I was amazed and said, “wow.”  Fred said, “and you are our new secretary?” to which I replied yes on the way out of the door to meet the other mgrs I’d be supporting.

And the rest is history because after spending only six months in that dept. I was promoted again and from that point on in my 17 year career at Research I never held any job longer than one year.  But my friendship with Fred continued. I’d call him (he never called me) and ask him to meet me for lunch in the cafeteria and we’d sit and talk about our families, our backgrounds, our parents, life in general.  He was my friend and I loved him.

October 26, 2010, from Dr. Mark Maybury:

Our community mourns the loss of a great pioneer, engineer, and mentor.  Language and speech processing remains one of the most profoundly challenging and societally important application areas of computing. Language is nothing less than a window into individual minds, a repository for culture, and a medium for capturing and making accessible human history. Fred invented not only novel speech and language methods and algorithms but through his teaching and mentorhip he helped to develop and shape many researchers who continue to advance areas in the field. His ideas and spirit remains and is multiplied by those whose lives he influenced.  He will be missed and remembered by all of us.

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