Azerbaijan International

Winter 1999 (7.4)
Pages 28-29

Famous People: Then and Now
Lotfi Zadeh
Creator of Fuzzy Logic (1921- )

Interview with Lotfi Zadeh, Creator of Fuzzy Logic - by Betty Blair
Short Biographical Sketch - Lotfi Zadeh
Commencement Speech - When You Can't Stop For Lunch - Berkeley, 1997
Fuzzy Logic on the Internet - Mark Hopkins, 1994

Lotfi Zadeh
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 Theory.

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 things.

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 translation).

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 my curiosity.

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 United States.

Without a doubt, early influences are very determining. That's why children need so much exposure to good things when they are young.

How was your own childhood different from that of kids growing up today?
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 21st century?
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 these days.

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 dollars.

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 paradigm shift.

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.

Azerbaijan International (7.4) Winter 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.

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