Azerbaijan International

Winter 1994 (2.4)
Page 49

Lotfi Zadeh
Short Biographical Sketch
by Betty Blair
Page 49

Interview with Lotfi Zadeh, Creator of Fuzzy Logic - by Betty Blair
Lotfi Zadeh Reflects on his Youth with Blair
Commencement Speech - When You Can't Stop For Lunch - Berkeley, 1997
Fuzzy Logic on the Internet - Mark Hopkins, 1994
What is Fuzzy Logic? - Blair, 1994

He was born in 1921 in Baku, Soviet Azerbaijan; but in truth, as creator of the concept of "Fuzzy Logic", Lotfi Zadeh belongs to a world where there are no boundaries limited to time or place. He really is best characterized as an internationalist. He's quick to shrug off nationalism, insisting there are much deeper issues in life. "The question really isn't whether I'm American, Russian, Iranian, Azerbaijani, or anything else," he'll tell you. "I've been shaped by all these people and cultures and I feel quite comfortable among all of them."

It's a vivid example of how in real life Zadeh shuns abrupt absolute categories that don't take into account life's complexities. It's the same kind of thinking that characterizes Fuzzy Logic, an unorthodox theory which he invented which is impacting computer technology.

Born of an Azerbaijani father on assignment as a journalist from Iran, and a Russian mother who was a physician, Zadeh enjoyed a privileged life those early years of his life in Baku. But at the age of ten, when Stalin introduced collectivization of farms throughout the Soviet Union, widespread famine followed, and the Zadeh family moved back to his father's homeland. There he continued his education in English in a private Presbyterian school in Tehran. After high school, he sat for the national university exams and placed second in the entire country. In 1942, he was graduated from the University of Tehran in electrical engineering.

During World War II, he moved to the US and took a Master's degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1946 and a Ph.D. from Columbia (New York) in 1949, where he began teaching systems theory. Since 1959, Zadeh has taught at Berkeley, first in the Electrical Engineering (EE) Department where he became Chair in 1963, and later in the Computer Science Division (EECS).

Since 1991, he's been officially "retired" though it's hard to imagine how he could keep a busier schedule. He still continues to go to his office on campus everyday when in town; but conferences and consultations, often abroad, keep him away, on average, a few days each week. He generally takes the "red-eye" flights to the East Coast, preferring to travel all night because his schedule is too tight to spend much time hanging around in airports and hotels.

Lotfi Zadeh, in person, is a lean, quiet, unpretentious, unassuming sort of man. He's often described as extremely gracious - a "gentleman" in the European sense of the word - even by those who don't agree with him. He's methodical, given to details, a "pencil person" (preferring the eraser's tentativeness over pen). During his leisure, he's extremely fond of photography though he used to have more time for it in years past than now. Black and white portraiture (with its fine nuances of grays, of course) is his favorite. He has photographed quite a few famous people himself, including Presidents Truman and Nixon.
His original paper on Fuzzy Logic published in 1965 encountered skepticism and, in his words, occasional, downright hostility. Nearly thirty years later, the controversy surrounding Fuzzy Logic is still with us, though not to the same extent. The numerous applications of Fuzzy, especially in Japan, are too visible to be denied.

He's gifted with a mind that provides the flexibility to address learned scientists as well as the most unindoctrinated novice by describing scientific principles in concrete tangible examples from everyday life. He tries to best to be accessible to both groups.

Although Fuzzy logic has a much longer reach than traditional logical systems, Zadeh is the first to admit that it is not a panacea. "There are and will be many tasks which humans can perform with ease and which lie beyond the capability of any computer, any machine and any logical system that we can conceive of today."

How Big is "Fuzzy"?
Who knows? Zadeh is too busy pushing forward to keep up with how far the field has expanded. His office in the newly constructed Computer Science Building at Berkeley is stacked floor to ceiling with reprints of articles related to Fuzzy. He believes that people are studying this field in every country which offers advanced education. Twelve journals are now published which include the word "Fuzzy" in their title. An estimated 15,000 articles have been published, although it's hard to be exact as some appear in obscure journals in remote parts of the world.

An estimated 3,000 patents have been applied for and 1,000 granted. The Japanese, with 2,000 scientists involved in Fuzzy Logic, have been very quick to incorporate Fuzzy Logic in the design of consumer products, such as household appliances and electronic equipment and one company, Mitsushita (which sells under the name of Panasonic and Quasar) acknowledged that in 1991-1992 alone, they had sold more than 1 billion dollars worth of equipment that used Fuzzy Logic. The concept is so popular there that the English word has entered the Japanese language, though the Japanese pronounce it more like "fudgy" than "fuzzy".

Zadeh's intellectual contributions are myriad. He's listed in "Who's Who in the World" and since the late 1980s when the Japanese became interested, the field has expanded exponentially. So, too have the acknowledgments of these contributions with honors such as the esteemed Honda Prize in Japan in 1991, medals, honorary memberships, doctorates, fellowships, editorships, and chairmanships from all over the world. Azerbaijan Republic is among those who have honored him in 1993 when they bestowed an honorary Professorship from the Azerbaijan State Oil Academy.

Characteristically, Zadeh is "down-to-earth", always holding abstract scientific concepts up to a reality check of their practical utility of whether they "do us any good." Since the applications of Fuzzy Logic to real life situations are infinite; it's extremely likely that we'll be hearing about Zadeh for a long, long time to come.

From Azerbaijan International (2.4) Winter 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.

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