As I See It, September 2009

By Nelson Morgan, Director

Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.

-Satchel Paige

Today, I had lunch with a favorite uncle. He turned 96 recently, and is starting to appear a bit frail, though this is new for him — two years ago he seemed perfectly fit. His mind is still fine, and he retains much of the inner fire that he had as a young man. In those earlier times, he was an actor, a playwright, and a union organizer (in the electrical union). He also was blacklisted for a quarter century after an appearance before the House Un–American Activities Committee (HUAC). In that episode, he refused to testify (rather than taking refuge in the 5th Amendment), and challenged HUAC's right to hold such "witch hunt" hearings. This was during the Red Scare in post–WWII America, and the Committee used these hearings to intimidate and harass anyone who had dared to join or even associate with left–wing organizations. Uncle Manny essentially dared them to press charges, but instead, they blocked his ability to act, stage plays, or work for any American firm; this was standard fare for the blacklisting scenario of that time.

For me, Uncle Manny was (and is) a "working class hero." But he is something more — he represents an uncompromising embrace of life. At 96, while certainly delighting in telling stories of earlier days, he primarily looks forward — he is still considering what to do next. In recent years he has continued to write, perform (for instance in a one–man play that he wrote), and teach. He frankly recognizes his new physical limitations, but still aims his mind forward to new creative acts. And he has also continued to be active politically, serving as an advisor to organized labor, and writing op–ed pieces critical of government actions (and inaction).

I'm probably all the more intrigued by his story because I recently turned 60. In our base–10 culture, each of these decade transitions seems to have special meaning. Becoming 60 often reminds people of the typical retirement age, coming up in a few years. But my uncle only had his career rejuvenated in the last 30 years or so. Working with so many brilliant and creative young people at ICSI and in Berkeley in general is invigorating in some ways; but sometimes being with someone much older who still is creative and ambitious is also a great reminder that we can still contribute for a long time. It also doesn't hurt my sense of being young just to be with someone who is almost 4 decades older….

In many ways, ours is a youth–oriented culture. And yet, we also have an aging population, with increased longevity and baby boom demographics. Increasingly, there are many people past the typical retirement age who are looking for things to do and ways to be relevant. In our own professions, those of computer science and engineering, we have many examples of researchers who have continued to inspire and create long after the standard retirement age. And ICSI (and the Berkeley campus overall) has creative people with a wide range of ages.

All of these creative people, including my uncle, inspire me to look forward. Uncle Manny is also inspiring in a completely different way: his uncompromising drive to improve society. Even his art was focused on improving the lives of working people, though he also always revealed the human side of his cause: his fight with HUAC caused many conflicts within his family, creating problems that he revealed freely in his writings. It's not so easy to live up to his example. But we can try — looking where we can for research directions that: (1) present creative challenges; (2) offer some opportunity to satisfy a societal need, and (3) pay the bills. There are often conflicts between these goals, but we do our best.

One of the ICSI groups working to reconcile these goals is the Speech Group, featured in this issue of the Gazette. ICSI has worked on different aspects of speech processing for 20 years, and it's fair to say that we've made some significant contributions. Behind these efforts lies a notion of improving the accessibility of information for a wider range of humanity. As computers have spread throughout every aspect of our lives, we have run the risk of creating an environment that was more hospitable to machines than to people. Computers are ubiquitous, most notably the computers in our cell phones. And as access to information has become so much broader, the human interface for that access has often become more difficult, particularly for the wider population. Speech processing is not the whole answer to this, but it's part of it. It's part of the broader goal to make machines more human–friendly, rather than making people more machine–like; part of being able to ask for what you need in human terms: "call Hynek Hermansky" rather than having to use 10–digit codes for each person we want to contact. Of course, the ICSI Speech Group has moved significantly beyond the speech recognition task, as you will see in the rest of this issue. Enjoy.