Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi School Alumnus Robert M. Gray Delivers 2009 Viterbi Lecture to an Audience With Many Familiar Faces

Former Doctoral Student of Robert M. Scholtz speaks on "Codes and Coin Flips: Compression and Modeling" - and about his time at USC
Eric Mankin
February 27, 2009 —

Former rock guitarist, motorcyclist, Venice Beach resident and USC engineering grad student returned to old haunts February 26 as a distinguished senior scientist, re-connecting with old classmates, colleagues, friends — and delivering the seventh Andrew Viterbi Distinguished Lecture in Communication.

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Gray and former M.I.T. classmate Lloyd Armstrong Jr., now  USC provost emeritus
Gray lecture

The USC ties of Robert M. Gray, now Alcatel-Lucent Technologies Professor of Communications and Networking in the Stanford University Department of Electrical Engineering, run extremely deep, and Gray devoted at least a third of his time exploring them, along with a discussion of "Codes and Coin Flips: Compression and Modeling," the formal title of his talk.

Gray came to USC as a grad student from M.I.T., where one of his oldest student friendships was with USC provost-emeritus Lloyd Armstrong Jr., present in the audience. He was personally recruited by USC engineering legend Zohrab Kaprielian, who had hired a group of star faculty in the field of communications, and was looking for the best graduate students for them.

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Andrew Viterbi, Solomon Golomb, and Yannis C. Yortsos await the Viterbi Keynote Address

His faculty and thesis advisor at USC was Robert Scholtz, also present in the audience, just a day after a USC reception honoring his election to the National Academy of Engineering. His presentation included photographs of Scholtz, Sol Golomb (in a pentamino portrait), Lloyd Welch (who had offered help at a crucial point in his thesis writing) and a very young Andrew Viterbi, whose algorithm surfaces in a novel application in the technical work presented.
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Ming Hsieh Department co-chair Sandy Sawchuk introduced Gray. (click on photo to hear his introduction)

All of these, along with spouses, including Gray's Viterbi lecture predecessor Jack K. Wolf, were in the audience. So were a number of former graduate students, many of them now professors, a surprising number of these female. Gray said, both proudly and sadly, that his former grad students amount to 4 percent of all female professors of electrical engineering in the U.S.

Gray's smile broadened as he described his delight in his life in Southern California as a transplanted easterner, living at Venice Beach, forming his own rock band, MCF ( initials for what his Wikipedia entry calls an "unprintable" name) with Reed-Solomon code namesake Gus Solomon as voice coach; his attendance at concerts by Big Brother (where he met his wife), Creedence and other great late 60s bands, and a heady intellectual atmosphere of ideas not just thought but lived.
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Professor Robert Scholtz bestows a doctoral hood on his former student, 40 years after the Ph.D.
And he also spoke enthusiastically about a new  paradigm for compression of images and  other information for communication: "if you can simulate something, you can compress it."

At the end of the speech, Scholtz presented him with a very non-digital memorial, his doctor's hood to go with his USC Ph.D. which he had never received after missing commencement ceremonies in 1969.