UC Berkeley computer science professor emeritus Robert Wilensky dies at 61

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UC Berkeley Newscenter/Courtesy

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Robert Wilensky, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of computer science who was an expert on digital information services and artificial intelligence, died on March 15 at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland. He was 61.

Born on March 26, 1951, in Brooklyn, Wilensky received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1972 and his doctorate in computer science six years later from Yale University. He was hired at UC Berkeley as a faculty member in computer science in 1978 and later was appointed as a professor of the School of Information in 1996. His career spanned nearly 30 years before he retired in 2006 after a cardiac arrest.

Wilensky’s research interests included artificial intelligence, digital security and natural language processing. His friends and colleagues remember his other, more personal interests, like cars and his motorcycle.

“He was very knowledgeable about a lot of things and was always someone who kept you surprised,” said Jonathan Traupman, a former student of Wilensky who co-published papers with the late professor. “He did a lot of things you wouldn’t expect renowned professors to do, like ride motorcycles.”

Throughout his career, Wilensky authored and co-authored multiple papers, articles and technical reports on multiple subjects, ranging from artificial intelligence and natural language processing to information dissemination.

One of Wilensky’s many contributions was the UC Berkeley Digital Library Project, founded in the 1990s, in which he and his team researched techniques to transfer books and research materials from physical libraries to the Internet.

The concepts Wilensky and his team were researching are ideas now commonly seen in technologies such as Adobe Acrobat and Google Earth, according to Richard Fateman, a professor emeritus of computer science, co-principal investigator of the UC Berkeley Digital Library Project and Wilensky’s longtime friend

To Fateman, Wilensky was a “rainmaker, a man who made things happen” and an interesting conversationalist with a great sense of humor.

While at UC Berkeley, Wilensky also served as director of the Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Project and the Cognitive Science Project, which he helped further establish by directing grants and aiding to organize the faculty. Among his many awards and honors, Wilensky was named a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery and was also a honorary member of the Golden Key National Honor Society.

“It’s a real tragedy that he passed away so young,” Traupman said. “It’s a real loss to the Cal community. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to work with him. He was one of the most important teachers I ever worked with.”

Wilensky is survived by his wife, Ann Danforth, and their two children. His colleagues at the department of electrical engineering and computer sciences are planning a memorial for Wilensky in May.

Contact Sophie Ho at [email protected].