Frederick Jelinek, speech recognition pioneer, dies

Frederick Jelinek, a pioneer in creating the technology that allows computers to interpret human speech and translate languages, died Tuesday of a heart attack in his faculty office at the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus. The electrical engineering professor and Roland Park resident was 77.

In more than 40 years at IBM Research and Hopkins, Mr. Jelinek led the way in developing the statistical theory behind modern voice-recognition systems that do everything from starting up phone service to translating intelligence intercepts from Arabic to English. Essentially, he helped take an infant science that merely transcribed human speech to a sophisticated one that could interpret meaning and anticipate what the speaker would say next.

"He envisioned applying the mathematics of probability to the problem of processing speech and language," said Sanjeev Khudanpur, associate professor of electrical engineering at Hopkins. "This revolutionized the field. Fifty years ago no one thought that was possible. Today, it's the dominant paradigm."

Born to a Jewish father and Christian mother in Kladno in what is now the Czech Republic, Mr. Jelinek was barred from formal schooling by Nazi edict after he finished the second grade. Through much of World War II, he was educated in what were essentially underground academies.

William Jelinek, the professor's son, said his father's family moved to Prague after being ousted from their Kladno home by Nazi occupiers. Frederick Jelinek's father would eventually die of disease in the concentration camp at Terezin shortly after the Allied liberation.

In a 2001 speech he delivered when he received an honorary doctorate from Charles University in Prague, Frederick Jelinek said that after the war he resumed his schooling but struggled academically in the Czech equivalent of high school. "During my entire studies I never received a single A in any subject," he said.

In 1949, with her son blocked from taking the graduation exam by communist authorities, Mr. Jelinek's mother brought her family to the United States, where he completed high school in New York.

Mr. Jelinek would recall that engineering was not his original interest. "I somehow slid into my scientific profession," he told the audience in Prague.

He said his original dream was to become a lawyer and fight on behalf of the unjustly accused, but he concluded that with his heavy accent he would not be effective in court. He went into engineering, he said, when he learned it would take him only four years to earn a degree, compared with seven to become a lawyer.

Mr. Jelinek earned his bachelor's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1956. He stayed on at MIT to earn a master's degree in 1958 and a doctorate in 1962.

His son said Mr. Jelinek traveled in 1957 to a professional conference in what was then Czechoslovakia, where he met and fell in love with Milena Tobolova, a filmmaker and dissident against the Communist government.

For years after that, Ms. Tobolova was barred from leaving the country, her son said. But during a visit by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to the United States, Mr. Jelinek's academic adviser, Jerome Wiesner, who was also a science aide to then Sen. John F. Kennedy, approached the Russian and asked him to intervene with the Czech authorities. Soon after Kennedy was elected president, Ms. Tobolova was allowed to emigrate.

"As an inaugural gift to Kennedy, the Czechs released nine dissidents and one of them was my mother," William Jelinek said. Marriage followed in February 1961.

While at MIT, Frederick Jelinek became interested in applying information theory to linguistics. After receiving his doctorate, he accepted an offer to teach and to study information theory at Cornell University.

In 1972, Mr. Jelinek accepted a summer position at IBM Research, which was just beginning to work on speech recognition. Eventually, he said, he was forced to decide between Cornell and his expanding role in IBM Research. He chose IBM, where he worked for 21 years and headed a team that sought to apply the power of supercomputers to the challenges of transcribing and translating the spoken word.

Mr. Khudanpur said that previous efforts at voice recognition and translation focused on codifying rules and applying them — an approach that was frustrated by the complexity and subtlety of language. He said Mr. Jelinek's approach was to assemble a huge database of text and to allow the computer to calculate the probabilities of words appearing in relation to other words — deriving meaning from context rather than rules.

The strategy was widely questioned at the time, but when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored a competition in the field in 1980, Mr. Khudanpur said, Mr. Jelinek's approach prevailed.

"By the '90s, everybody was on board," Mr. Khudanpur said.

Jason Eisner, associate professor of computer science at Hopkins, called Mr. Jelinek's application of statistical theory and probability to voice recognition a trailblazing approach that later was adapted to many other fields that employ artificial intelligence, including stock market prediction and biomedical research.

Mr. Jelinek retired from IBM in 1993 and was recruited by Hopkins to head its Center for Language and Speech Processing. Mr. Khudanpur said the center grew from two faculty members and two graduate students when Mr. Jelinek arrived to 10 faculty and 40 grad students.

Mr. Khudanpur said Mr. Jelinek acted as a "father figure" to younger scientists and remained vitally engaged in the work of the center until the final hours of his life.

"Fred retire? That's an oxymoron. He was never going to retire," Mr. Khudanpur said.

Among Mr. Jelinek's many professional awards, he was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2006 to honor his work in speech recognition.

In addition to his scientific pursuits, Mr. Jelinek's son said, he was an avid student of culture.

"He would go all over the world and wherever he went he would always make it a point to go to museums and cathedrals," William Jelinek said.

Mr. Jelinek also took a keen interest in the development of his native country and returned to Prague regularly — visiting more frequently after the end of communist rule in 1989. With the Cold War ended, he helped persuade IBM to set up a computing center at Charles University, where he spent a sabbatical year, and the Czech Institute of Technology.

"He was most comfortable in Prague," his son said. "He was back amongst his people."

In addition to his son, of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., and his wife, of New York, Mr. Jelinek is survived by a daughter, Hannah Sarbin of Larchmont, N.Y., a sister, Susan Abramowitz of Montreal, and three grandchildren.

Services were held Friday. Hopkins is expected to hold a memorial service at a later date.

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