Computer Science Legend David Waltz, Veteran of Thinking Machines and Columbia, Dies at 68

David Waltz, a legend in computer science who made major contributions to artificial intelligence and information retrieval and has strong ties to the Boston and New York areas, has died at the age of 68 of brain cancer, according to the New York Times and other reports.

Waltz was a veteran of the early Cambridge, MA-based parallel supercomputer firm Thinking Machines and a graduate of MIT, where he got his PhD and studied under artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky. Since 2003, he has been director of the Center for Computational Learning Systems at Columbia University.

Among other work, Waltz developed a technique for computers to render 3-D scenes accurately and also pioneered in “constraint propagation,” which is used widely for solving problems like delivery and route scheduling, according to a great New York Times obit of him by John Markoff.

Markoff’s piece has a lot more details, including tributes from other computer science legends. But here is one excerpt that explains Waltz’s work—in what is known as case-based reasoning—while at Thinking Machines that Markoff says “provided the foundation for today’s Internet search engines.”

“It revolutionized the way computers recognized characters, words, images and later, even voices. Before, a computer had to follow a set of programmed rules to arrive at recognition (it’s an “i” if there’s a dot, for example). Now it could comb through its vast memory and deduce what the image was by comparing it to what had been stored there.

The technique transformed the field of artificial intelligence and also greatly advanced voice recognition and machine vision technology. And it led directly to the “big data” and data-science approaches that are essential tools for search engines, allowing them to sift through large collections of information to improve accuracy and relevance.”

I met Waltz in the late 1990s, when he was at NEC Research Institute in Princeton, where he also served as president from 2000 to 2002. After NEC, he moved to become director of Columbia’s Center for Computational Learning Systems. Here is his home page there.

Waltz died Thursday in Princeton, NJ, at University Medical Center.

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