Then and Now
Creator of Fuzzy
Logic (1921- )
with Lotfi Zadeh, Creator of Fuzzy Logic - by Betty Blair
Biographical Sketch - Lotfi Zadeh
Speech - When You Can't Stop For Lunch - Berkeley, 1997
Fuzzy Logic on the Internet - Mark Hopkins,
Lotfi Zadeh was born
in Baku to an Azerbaijani father who was on assignment as a journalist
from Iran and a Russian mother who was a physician; his family
moved back to Tehran in 1931 after some of Stalin's severe immigration
policies were enforced. Zadeh continued his education in English
in a private Presbyterian missionary school, then graduated from
the University of Tehran in 1942. He took his Ph.D. from Columbia
University in New York in 1949 where he went on to teach Systems
In 1959, he began a professorship at the University of California
at Berkeley (UCB). He officially retired in 1991 but continues
to be extremely active at scientific conferences where he is
a much sought-after speaker.
Lotfi Zadeh is perhaps best known for inventing the concept of
"Fuzzy Logic", a theory he first presented in 1965.
Fuzzy Logic is used for notions that cannot be defined in mathematical
preciseness, but which rely on identifying gradations, hence
the word, "fuzzy".
Applications are both endless and varied. In addition to consumer
applications especially in Japanese electronics, Fuzzy Logic
is being used in the fields of biomedicine, finances, geography,
philosophy, ecology, agricultural processes, water treatment,
satellite remote sensing, handwriting analysis, nuclear science,
weather forecasting and stock market analysis, to name a few.
What experiences and interests in childhood would you say shaped
your life and career?
I went through the first three grades of elementary school in
Baku. Those three years - from age 7 to 10 - had a significant and
long-lasting influence on my thinking and my way of looking at
At that time (1928-31), we were constantly bombarded with Soviet
ideas, such as: You have to be idealistic. You have to put society
above your own individual needs. You have to be interested in
science. You have to work hard. The Soviets placed science and
technology on a pedestal. They also instilled the belief that
you owed something to society-that you should focus on what contribution
you could make to others.
I was also a voracious
reader. As an only child, my parents provided me with a library
of a couple of thousand books. By the time I was 10, I had gone
through most of the classics - Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Chekhov, Turgenev - Russian
classics as well as world classics like Shakespeare (in Russian
You might say that I was rather pampered in my childhood - pampered,
but I wouldn't consider myself to have been spoiled. All the
attention I received, however, did not make me disinterested
in things that had to do with the mind. On the contrary, it heightened
To this day, I'm a very curious person. I read many newspapers
and magazines, and I'm very interested in what goes on in the
rest of the world. I travel a lot to conferences all over the
world and sometimes when I meet people, they're quite surprised
that I know so much about what goes on in their country in terms
of politics and trends.
Generally, as people become older, they become less and less
interested in scientific work. Other things intrude - family, children,
grandchildren, property, business, companies. But that didn't
happen to me. Above all, I maintain a sense of curiosity about
what goes on in my field. And that enables me to continue to
be active. Without that sense of curiosity, I couldn't continue
to make contributions.
There was another very important childhood influence that should
be mentioned. It was Alborz College. When we resettled in Tehran
when I was 10 years old, my parents enrolled me in this English
language school which was under the administration of Presbyterian
missionaries from America. I was deeply influenced by these people
as they were extremely decent, fine, honest and helpful people.
To me they represented the best that you could find in the United
States-people from the Midwest with strong roots. They were really
"Good Samaritans" - willing to give of themselves for
the benefit of others. So this kind of attitude influenced me
deeply. It also instilled in me a deep desire to live in the
Without a doubt, early influences are very determining. That's
why children need so much exposure to good things when they are
How was your own childhood different from that of kids growing
I must say that looking back-not only at my years in Baku but
also my teens in Tehran - I often think about how lucky I was to
grow up in such an environment. Today there are so many negative
influences on young people. For example, there are no role models
to speak of, so young people indulge in things like drinking,
sex and drugs. You see a lot of that sort of stuff going on.
The books that I read as a child all had heroes-men of ideals
and integrity. They were always fighting evil. We didn't have
the "anti-hero" that one finds in literature and drama
today - characters that are against everything and, in themselves,
rotten to the core.
What advice would you give to young people as they enter the
These days young people don't pay much attention to what older
people tell them. They think that the older generation doesn't
know things like they do-computers, for instance - and so they
look upon them condescendingly.
It's easy to give advice like: Be good. Be kind. Be considerate.
Be thoughtful. Be X, Y, Z. But the question arises: Is that kind
of advice valuable? It's obvious that we should behave in a civil
way. The question is whether we can behave that way in a society
that is highly competitive and where success, above all else,
is measured by income. That's the environment that we live in
Teens are constantly bombarded by advertising, which they soon
realize is pretentious and full of half-truths. The advertising
media views them through the prism of consumerism merely as potential
But consumerism is an ideology. It's not something that will
help them develop positive attitudes. It won't help them understand
what life is all about. It's very important for them to realize
that this barrage that they hear and see on TV is unhealthy and
that they should accord low importance to it. Unfortunately,
in so doing, they become skeptical and cynical, but at least
such an attitude serves to protect them, to immunize themselves
against these negative influences. So when I tell young people
to be skeptical, it's redundant advice because they tend to be
that way anyway. They have to be.
You see it all the time. A box of this, a tube of that-the container
is big, but the product inside occupies only half of the space.
That's deception. It's half empty. After awhile, you become cynical.
You expect deception. Phoniness has become very pervasive.
When I meet young people from other countries-Europe, in particular - I
find that they are much less cynical than their counterparts
in the United States. There's a striking difference because young
people here are surrounded by phoniness-politicians, advertisers,
so many things.
In addition, it's not only the ads but the TV programming that
is controlled by advertising. That, to me, is an even more serious
issue than the annoyance of these intrusive ads. What you see
on TV programming - violence, sensationalism - is very unhealthy.
I'd say: Let young people develop habits of reading books and
learning something from books rather than the TV screen.
What would you say is your greatest achievement in life? What
do you want to be remembered for most?
The theory of Fuzzy Logic, of course, and especially my recent
work that I published this year (January 1999) on the Computational
Theory of Perceptions. I think that this theory will have a significant
impact, not just in engineering but in basic sciences and many,
many other fields. This concept opens the door to a major enlargement
of the role of natural languages in scientific theory. People
use formulas, mathematics and numbers when doing scientific work,
but this particular development will make it possible to use
natural language in scientific discourse. And it marks a significant
I started talking about this idea about a year ago. I really
feel that many things will develop from it. I'm confident in
my judgment about it because I've been around for a long time
and I know what's important and what's not. It will take a little
while before people understand the idea, but once they do, it
will have a major impact.
In the history of science, it's rare for a person my age 78 - to
make a significant contribution so late in life. Most people
have long ceased to be creative at such an age. It's curiosity,
I guess, that has been, and continues to be, one of the major
driving forces in my life and work. And, I'd say that its roots
can definitely be traced to childhood.
Lotfi Zadeh was
interviewed via telephone in his home in Berkeley, California,
by Editor Betty Blair in December 1999.
(7.4) Winter 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.
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