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Oral-History:Ruzena Bajcsy

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About Ruzena Bajcsy

Ruzena Bajcsy was born in 1933 and grew up in Czechoslovakia. Because of the family's Jewish background, all of her adult relatives were killed by the Nazis in 1944. Declared to be war orphans by the Red Cross, she and her sister remained under the organization's care until the end of the war. Despite moving between orphanages and foster parents, Bajcsy had no trouble at school and was a good student. Determined to have a career in electrical engineering, she earned a M.S. degree and a Ph.D. degree in the subject from Slovak Technical University.

Shortly thereafter Bajscy was invited to study the new discipline of computer science at Stanford University, and so she came to the United States in 1967. She planned to stay in the country for one year. On hearing about the Russian invasion of Prague in 1968, however, Bajcsy decided not to return to Czechoslovakia. She remained at Stanford until 1972, earning a second Ph.D. degree in computer science there.

For the next thirty years Bajcsy worked at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was Professor and Chair of Computer Science and Engineering, as well as Founder and Director of the University of Pennsylvania's General Robotics and Active Sensory Perception (GRASP) Laboratory. After leaving Penn, Bajcsy headed the National Science Foundation's Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate.

Bajscy is currently Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences and Director Emeritus of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Science (CITRIS) at the University of California, Berkeley. There she continues to do innovative research on machine perception, robotics and artificial intelligence, winning the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science for her recent work.

In this interview, Bajcsy talks about her experiences living, studying and working in Czechoslovakia and the United States. She discusses the impact of world events such as the Prague Spring on her educational and professional decisions. She also outlines the major projects on which she worked at the University of Pennsylvania, the National Science Foundation and the University of California, Berkeley. Aside from looking back at her own work with computers, Bajcsy reflects on the development of the wider field. Finally, she offers advice for young women who are considering a career in computing.

About the Interview

RUZENA BAJCSY: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 9 July 2002.

Interview #575 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.


Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Ruzena Bajcsy, an oral history conducted in 2002 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Ruzena Bajcsy
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 9 July 2002
PLACE: Bajcsy's office at the University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California

Childhood in Czechoslovakia

Abbate:

I want to get your life story again, even though I know some of it. You were born in Czechoslovakia?

Bajcsy:

That’s correct: Bratislava, yes.

Abbate:

What year was that?

Bajcsy:

1933. When Hitler came to power, unfortunately. Yes, that was the year.

Let’s see: where do we want to go from there?

Abbate:

What did your parents do?

Bajcsy:

My father was a civil engineer, and my mother was a teacher. Unfortunately, she was killed when I was three years old, and then my father remarried, so I really remember my stepmother more than my own biological mother. My stepmother was a pediatrician. The second marriage happened in 1938. We were Jewish, but then in 1938 we converted—both my father and myself—to Catholicism; so I remember my own baptism. We lived in central Slovakia from 1938 or ‘39, in a town called Zvolen. I lived there until 1946, when I moved back to Bratislava.

My parents and myself were not taken to a concentration camp. We were converted, but it didn’t really count; we were Jewish as far as the official government was concerned. The reason we were not taken to a concentration camp was that my father, as a civil engineer, was needed for support of the war, to maintain the roads. So we were given a so-called “presidential exception,” and we were spared being taken to the concentration camps.

But then, in 1944, there was a partisan uprising. This happened in August 1944. Once the uprising was going on, the Slovak fascist government invited the Nazis—the Germans—to suppress this movement; and once they came, they didn’t take account of any of the previous agreements. Subsequently the Nazis—obviously helped by some local people—came and took my parents, and they were killed in a nearby mass grave. This was approximately in November or December of 1944. I was eleven at that time and my sister seven years younger, and we survived simply by accident. We were in another room, and the Nazis who came to take my parents didn’t look in the other room. My mother had just a moment to step outside and tell me to be quiet and that they were going to be back—and I never saw them again.

After that, for a week the neighbors fed us; but after one week, they refused to feed us anymore. So I went to the Red Cross, and the Red Cross declared us as war orphans, and that’s how we survived the war until the Russians came to liberate us, in March 1945.

Abbate:

This was a refugee camp kind of thing?

Bajcsy:

The Red Cross had some building where they kept orphans and also served the refugees who were passing through and provided meals and shelter. It was like a shelter. At the end of the war, nobody survived in my family. All my uncles and aunts and my grandmother were killed by the Nazis. The only person who survived was my stepmother’s sister, who lived in Budapest, who was also a medical doctor. My little sister had problems with a lack of vitamins, and her skin was completely broken, and she was in a hospital. After the war, there were newspapers where you could look for relatives, and so my aunt found out where we were, and because my sister was so ill, she took her to Budapest—to cure her, basically—and I stayed in Czechoslovakia. Our separation was meant to be temporary, because I felt very strongly about my relationship with my sister—it was more like a mother-child relationship—but unfortunately, it got postponed; and then in 1948, Stalin closed all the borders, so you couldn’t travel between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. So my sister grew up with my aunt, who remarried in between, and I stayed in Czechoslovakia.

I had a pension through my father, so I was financially okay; but in 1947, I think, I moved from this city Zvolen to Bratislava: first to a Catholic orphanage, and then, after I was fourteen, the Catholic orphanage would not keep children beyond that age. So my guardians—who were established by the city, since I had no relatives—took me in, and I went to gymnasium and to school and lived with them until I got married when I was twenty-and-a-half. So that’s roughly the quick childhood.

Education and Early Work Experience

Bajcsy:

I was very lucky. I was very good in mathematics, and so I had no difficulties in gymnasium. I was a good student. When I finished gymnasium in 1952, a big decision I had to make was which university I would apply to. In communist countries in those days, if you studied mathematics, the only job you could have was to be a teacher, and the condition for being a teacher was that you had to comply to the government official ideology, which was Marxism and Leninism. I wasn’t ready to subscribe to that, so I decided to look for the engineering profession that was the most mathematically inclined, and that was electrical engineering. So I enrolled in electrical engineering in 1952, and I got my Masters Degree in 1957.

Abbate:

And that was at the Slovak Technical University?

Bajcsy:

Yes.

Abbate:

Did you have an idea of what you were going to do with that?

Bajcsy:

Well, the option with the electrical engineering degree was that you could go to industry to work, and there were no ideological preconditions, as opposed to staying in the university. Actually, I got into trouble: just before I finished, in 1956, there was a little political thaw in Czechoslovakia. This was after Khrushchev made his famous speech in which he secretly denounced Stalin. So there was a student meeting where I spoke about the great tradition of Czechoslovak education, that we shouldn’t follow the Russian model, that we should adhere to our own model that had tradition in Jan Amos Comenius [Komensky], who was a great educator in the fifteenth century. That got me into such trouble that, although I had a Doctoral Fellowship in mathematics, after I finished my electrical engineering degree I was condemned as an “enemy of the state” based on this speech, and the verdict was that I must go to a factory, to get to better know the working class. So I indeed went to work, and for five years I worked in an electronics factory, as an engineer.

After that, the computer era came, and the Slovak Technical University bought one of the first Russian computers, Ural II—which was built from electronic lamps, not even transistors! [both laugh] So they needed engineers, and I applied and was accepted; but again, the condition was that I could not teach, because I would have a bad influence on the students; but as an engineer I was okay. So I moved from this electronic industry to being a maintenance engineer at this computing center at the Slovak Technical University. There I started to work on my Ph.D. thesis, which they allowed me to do, and I finished my thesis and defended it in 1967.

Abbate:

So that was your first experience with a computer?

Bajcsy:

Yes; right.

Abbate:

Were you actually programming it?

Bajcsy:

Yes, I was programming in hexadecimal code. I mean, there was not even an assembly language; it was all hexadecimal or binary.

Abbate:

Was that cards? Or were you plugging it in?

Bajcsy:

No, there were no cards. It was perforated film that we punched holes in, and that’s how we read the program in. No cards.

Abbate:

Was that like the Zuse machines? There was a German machine that used film.

Bajcsy:

Yes? I don’t know that.

That was a machine that had to have very strong air conditioning, because of the heat that the lamps would put out; and it would break down almost every hour or so, so you had to reboot it, and clean it, and cool it. It was a complex device, that’s for sure! Very small in comparison to today’s computers; it had a 4096 memory size, and a very strange length: it had a 33-bit word length! The Russians wanted to be different from everybody else!

Abbate:

Right!

Coming to the United States

Bajcsy:

Right.

Then, in 1967, I got the opportunity to go to America. In between I had two children; my daughter was born in 1957 and my son in 1964. I defended my thesis, and it turned out that I was the first female Ph.D. in Slovakia in electrical engineering. Anyway, when this opportunity came, I had to jump all kinds of obstacles, but eventually they let me go, and the price I paid was that I had to leave the two children behind me.

Abbate:

Did your husband come?

Bajcsy:

He came later. I came to Stanford in October 1967, and he came later; but unfortunately we split, and so he went back and I stayed.

Abbate:

You were invited by John McCarthy [of Stanford University], right?

Bajcsy:

Yes, that’s correct. I owe him a great deal!

Abbate:

Tell me again how he connected up with you?

Bajcsy:

Well, he was—I believe this was a year before, in 1966—he was in Manchester; one of the early computers was built in Manchester by the English; and my boss, Professor Gvozdiak, got the opportunity to go there, and so they met there, and John McCarthy said to him that he would entertain somebody from Gvozdiak’s group, if he would send somebody to Stanford for studies. Initially, I really had all the intentions to go back after a year. But then, unfortunately, the Russians moved into Czechoslovakia in ‘68, and so when I saw that, I decided not to go back.

Abbate:

So you stayed and got another Ph.D.

Bajcsy:

In ’72, right.

Abbate:

And that would have been computer science at that time?

Bajcsy:

That was in computer science.

Abbate:

What was your second Ph.D. on?

Bajcsy:

The second Ph.D. was in computer vision, on texture recognition. It was recognition of visual patterns, repetitive kinds of patterns.

Abbate:

Had you already been interested in A.I./robotics kinds of things?

Bajcsy:

Well, my first Ph.D., in electrical engineering, was actually on learning machines, Markovian processes and learning machines; so I always was interested in: How can you use mathematics and the new insights that you get from technology for explaining some behavior, human behavior? As I read mathematics, which I loved very much—still love—I simultaneously was always very interested in psychology; so I was kind of amateurishly reading psychology. So it was rather natural for me to think about. And vision is a fascinating modality. How do you extract all this information from the rays that fall on your eye? It’s the most complex sense, the most challenging. Can you explain it in a mechanistic fashion? I mean, that’s really the issue.

Abbate:

And can you?

Bajcsy:

Well, we are, more and more; yes. I believe that eventually we will. I really believe that, as mysterious as it looks, it’s explainable.

The Environment at Stanford

Abbate:

What was it like coming to Stanford and to the United States?

Bajcsy:

Well, as you can imagine: I came in 1967, in the middle of the hippie movement, and it was fascinating. Of course, I came from this very conservative Czechoslovakian, communist, and in some ways very Catholic background—very, very conservative background; the whole environment was rather conservative. So, it was a tremendous eye-opener of possibilities. I was very moved when I came for the first time to the Stanford book store, and on the same shelf I saw the Bible, the Koran, and Marx-Engels next to each other! To me, this was a testimonial to what freedom is really all about. And then, the whole hippie movement was, in many regards, very idealistic. You know, the students at Stanford were not poor students; they came from middle-class families; but they were asking, “What is all this materialism for? Is this good for you?” and so forth. So I very much related to those ideals. Unfortunately, then it kind of got corrupted by the drug use and the violence and all that. But it was very exciting and elevating. I was very elevated. I just felt that suddenly I had shed a big burden that I felt, and constraints I found, in the old country, due to various conditions—as I said, the general environment was just terribly conservative, and I was an outsider. I was an independent thinker, and in those conservative societies that’s not very much tolerated, you know.

I used to joke that I was a triple minority: I was Jewish; I was a female scientist; and I was Slovak, which is a minority in Czechoslovakia. I really felt like an outsider. And I regret to say that I have no real desire to go back, although I appreciate a lot of the culture of my old country; but it’s just too small-thinking. Even today, it’s very bourgeois, and now, of course, everyone’s looking out for the materialistic things. Of course, you need a certain standard of living to be comfortable, but beyond that, this quest for more things doesn’t appeal to me. If I am greedy, I am greedy after knowledge. I want to know more. I always feel that there’s just not enough time to learn enough.

Abbate:

Did you feel that at Stanford, you were a minority in terms of being a female engineer?

Bajcsy:

No, no. At Stanford, I was really embraced. Yes, I had in the beginning tremendous difficulties because my English skills were not as good as they should have been. Also, although I was trained in the engineering mathematics, I really didn’t know the discrete mathematics, which computer scientists use, so I had to really pick up that. As you can imagine, as you get older, it’s harder to pick up new mathematics, and I was ten years senior, at least in age, to my student colleagues. So it wasn’t that easy; but I loved it, and it gave me tremendous insight, and John McCarthy was very supportive of me.

It was a very exciting environment. The new ideas: there was no limit to new ideas, and that was very exciting! Remember, it was also a time when the whole area of computer science was still in diapers, so to speak, and artificial intelligence was just being born. We were all very naive; we oversimplified the problems; but we were terribly excited! Now the field, of course, is much more mature. We are a little more realistic about what can be done, but I think we also brought in more scientific methodology—you know, old-fashioned engineering methodology—which in those days was not there. You’d try anything, and everything was new. It brought in, also, all kinds of flaky people; it was a combination of thinkers but also some flaky people.

Abbate:

So you would have been thirty-nine or thereabouts when you finished at Stanford?

Bajcsy:

Right.

The GRASP Lab at Penn

Abbate:

And then you got the job at Penn?

Bajcsy:

Penn, right. I was an Assistant Professor there. I started to build my image processing laboratory, and then, little by little, I expanded it to a robotics lab, and that’s how the GRASP Lab was born. GRASP stands for “General Robotics and Active Sensory Perception.” That was in 1978, just after I got my tenure.

Abbate:

Now, you have a theory about robotics in the sense of the active . . .

Bajcsy:

Active perception, yes. That was a turning point. Until then, the way a lot of auditory or visual measurements were taken was that measurements were taken in, and then processed, and then the machine would spit out the output. And I argued that perception is not that you take it in, close your eyes, process, and then you say “Oh! This is a table.” I argued that it’s an active process. My favorite sentences were, “We don’t see; we look”; and “We don’t touch; we feel”—which is an active process. In some sense, that came to me very naturally; because again, in my electrical engineering, I was a control engineer, and control engineers view the world as a feedback process. So when I thought about these things, I really combined the signal processing with the active process of acquisition.

Abbate:

So how does that translate in terms of a robot?

Bajcsy:

Well, it depends on how you define what a robot is. A robot is a mechanism that takes data and does something with it, but also interacts with the world, with the environment. So the fact that I professed actively interacting with the environment as you perceive meant inevitably that I had to deal with the mechanisms that did that, which were robots.

Abbate:

So to be active, you have to be embodied and interacting with the environment?

Bajcsy:

Well, you have to have some mechanisms, like motors. I mean, if you think about it, your neck, and your head movement, and your eye movements, are all motorically controlled.

Abbate:

It seems like a philosophical difference from a more idealistic point of view that you can be disembodied and very abstract and still perceive.

Bajcsy:

Right.

Abbate:

So you started a whole lab at Penn doing that?

Bajcsy:

Right.

Teaching at Penn

Abbate:

What was it like teaching there?

Bajcsy:

I have to tell you that I never was a very good large-classroom teacher, and maybe it’s partly my nature. The large-classroom teaching is very theatrical—you have to entertain the students to keep their attention—and that’s not my style. I’m much more matter-of-fact: “Here are the facts. Here is why,” and so forth and so on. So I didn’t succeed on that score, and I’m much better off interacting on a personal level with the students: a small classroom, and even better, one-to-one. I have some great Ph.D. students, about fifty of them, who are all over the world. I enjoy very much the sort of interaction where they challenge me, and I have to, on the whiteboard or the blackboard, defend my arguments or challenge them. So on that score I am much better and much more successful.

Another problem I have is that, coming from Europe—remember, I taught before I came to America—there was a very different philosophy of university. Namely, the idea was that when you came to university, you knew what you wanted to do, and you were self-motivated, and so the classes were kind of just recounting what the subject matter was. It was up to you—at least in Czechoslovakia, the burden was on the students to challenge the teacher: Why this? Why that?” In America, the first three years, especially, are more like what the gymnasium used to be in Czechoslovakia. Very structured: “Here is the lecture. Here is the homework”; everything is very well-structured and controlled. I had a hard time adjusting to that. I find it terribly boring! You go through that; every year, the same thing. Besides, the subject matter that I taught, which was computer vision, was evolving so much that every year was different; so I sort of would make up lectures as I went, and so they were not as nicely structured, and the American students were not too happy with that. But as I said, I was very successful with my Ph.D. students, and that’s where my strength is, really: to see, challenge people, push them to a higher horizon, dream big. Yes.

The Environment at Penn

Abbate:

Was that a welcoming environment at Penn?

Bajcsy:

Well, let me put it in this way: My colleagues did not put up any obstacles. They didn’t prevent me from doing anything. But they were not of great help. Later, there was one man whom I really owe quite a bit, and his name is Joe Bordogna. He was first a colleague in electrical engineering, and then he became the Dean, and he really was very supportive. But the rest of my colleagues were indifferent, let’s put it this way.

Abbate:

Was that because you’re a woman? Or they weren’t interested in your subject?

Bajcsy:

Well, I think it was: They wanted to see what I could do. I mean, in academia, by and large, you are on your own. It’s only lately where some of us are so concerned about the junior faculty, to help them and so forth. But in the old days, this was not the case. “Here is the water. Swim!”

Abbate:

So that was just the normal environment.

Bajcsy:

Very normal; very normal. “Show what you can do!”

Abbate:

But if you did well, then . . .

Bajcsy:

Oh, yes, they were very happy. Sure. As I said, the positive thing is that they didn’t put any obstacles in front of me. But I didn’t feel that they were a great help. There was one man with whom I talked more than others, Aravind Joshi. He was a dear colleague and friend, and so we would talk, but he was in a different area; he was in natural language processing.

There was a little bit of suspicion: “What can a woman do?”

Abbate:

How many women were there in the department?

Bajcsy:

[Points to herself]

Abbate:

Just you! You were the first?

Bajcsy:

Yes.

Abbate:

Wow. So I’m sure there was some skepticism.

Bajcsy:

A little bit, yes. “What can she do? Will she fall apart?”

Abbate:

Were there a lot of women students?

Bajcsy:

No. Remember, this was ‘72. Typically for engineering, you know, there were few women.

Abbate:

That’s right, because at Penn, computer science is in the Engineering school.

Bajcsy:

Right. Later on, women would come to databases and computer science; certain aspects of computer science. But robotics doesn’t attract too many women, either, even today. I call this the “screwdriver problem.” You know, it’s not viewed as feminine to have a screwdriver in your hand! Things are changing—your generation is definitely much better off in expectations and perception—but it’s still an uphill battle.

Abbate:

Yes.

Bajcsy:

Would you agree?

Abbate:

Yes. I mean, the numbers look that way, too. There are still not very many women engineers.

Favorite Projects at Penn

Abbate:

What were some of your favorite projects at Penn?

Bajcsy:

What do you mean?

Abbate:

Well, you were there thirty years, so you must have worked on a lot of different projects.

Bajcsy:

All different! Yes, yes. Well, one of the things I’m proud of is the development of an anatomy atlas: a digital anatomy atlas of the brain.

Abbate:

I didn’t know that.

Bajcsy:

Subsequently we developed software that matched this atlas with the computer tomographic images, and later on with MRI images and positron emission tomographic images and all these imaging systems. In fact, I’m still very much interested in that problem. Right now I don’t do anything along those lines, but that’s a very important work.

Abbate:

So was that a functional map of the brain?

Bajcsy:

Anatomic. Anatomy, not function. The functional is different. We were taking the anatomy—which for every person is slightly different, so we customized to your brain— and then took the functional images and projected them on the anatomy, so that you can label the functional areas in terms of the anatomic labels.

Abbate:

I see.

Bajcsy:

But the important thing later on was to understand what is so-called “normal anatomy,” as opposed to abnormal: because there is natural variation, so what is that natural variation? So I spent some time on that, and a former student of mine is still working on that.

So that was one project. We had several. Within this paradigm of active perception, we built a system for automatic focusing, zooming, and deciding where to turn your head. I had a very nice project on combining visual information with tactile (grasping) information. We had a very interesting project on cooperative robots: robots that work together, and look at each other, and avoid obstacles, and meet again somewhere.

Abbate:

It sounds fun!

Bajcsy:

Oh, yes! Yes, I had a lot of fun doing it.

Head of CISE at NSF

Abbate:

Now, when I met you in December 2000, you were at NSF [National Science Foundation], as Head of CISE [Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate].

Bajcsy:

Yes.

Abbate:

And how was that experience?

Bajcsy:

Oh, it was wonderful! I was very lucky there, because I had two people that I really enjoyed working with. One is the Director, Rita Colwell. I really clicked with her, and I really enjoyed that; we still are good friends. And the other one, her Deputy, is Joe Bordogna; he’s the man who used to be the Dean at Penn, and we are very good friends. They were both very helpful. But, in general, also, there were some other people that I enjoyed interacting with. It was a very good experience for me. And it was the time when we got more money, so that helped bring success—it always helps—so I was able to implement some of my ideas in this information technology research program, which still is going on; so that’s very gratifying.

Abbate:

What kinds of ideas were you trying to promote?

Bajcsy:

First of all, I tried to promote large projects in computer science. You see, until then, NSF was supporting small projects—you know, one P.I. or two P.I.s—and giving out a hundred fifty thousand dollars or so in grants. I saw the effect on myself, that you got your grant and you immediately had to start writing another proposal, so it was really wasted. So with this new money, I installed a five-year program and more money, larger groups; because I found that the field is moving towards that kind of investigation. I also looked and learned quite a bit about this interaction of bio- and information technology: how you model things, and what kind of computation biology is doing; what can we learn from biology? That was very interesting. I also had to learn a little bit about quantum computing, because that was one of the projects we started under my Directorship. And then, just before I left, I pushed for a big networking infrastructure that would connect the supercomputers with large memory sets, called “cyberinfrastructure”; so hopefully there will be new money for that.

CITRIS at Berkeley

Abbate:

Now, how did you end up here at Berkeley?

Bajcsy:

Well, after I finished my stay at NSF, I went back to Penn, and I was ready to retire—my husband, especially, wanted me to retire—and then this institute was awarded by Governor Davis.

Abbate:

CITRIS?

Bajcsy:

CITRIS, right. Professor [Randy] Katz was the Director of this institute, and sometime during that summer he indicated that he really didn’t want to continue being the Director. So they were looking for a new Director, and they contacted me and they asked, Would I be interested? So—after negotiating with my husband, you know—I applied, and I got the job.

Abbate:

Is your husband also a computer scientist?

Bajcsy:

No, he’s a physicist. He’s retired.

Abbate:

Now, CITRIS is the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society. What is that?

Bajcsy:

Well, it’s being formed, you know; it’s an evolving institute. But fundamentally, what it is is: There are certain information technology technologies out there. This faculty of ninety is working on various aspects of small sensor nets, large databases, architectures, web, networking—you know, all these technologies. So that’s on one hand. On the other hand, you have many applications—energy conservation, environmental monitoring, health care, education, transportation, homeland security—that all require some or all of these technologies. So this institute is about, “How do you make, test, and integrate these technologies for these different applications?”

Abbate:

Do you have to bring people together from the technology and application sides?

Bajcsy:

That is really the hard part. Yes. How do you bring them together? So one of the things that I am trying to do—painfully—is to build large test beds for, let’s say, monitoring energy in a big building, or monitoring the environment outdoors; and then I’m hoping that, once I have these, I can bring the social scientists and say, “Look, here is a big laboratory. You can look at the privacy issues, or the regulatory issues,” and stuff like that.

There is another application that I am kind of struggling with. A lot of the humanists have digitized data sets out there—the museum collections; text; and they use a lot of big digital libraries—and they are disconnected. So the question is, “How can we bring them together?” So that if you are a student and you want to do research, or you want to take a course in Greek history, or Egyptology, or something—in these days you have much more material on the Web to document all of this . . . .

Abbate:

So you would do something to make that more accessible?

Bajcsy:

Well, that’s what I’m trying, yes; but it’s not easy.

Abbate:

No.

Bajcsy:

Right. That’s what I would like to do, but right now I’ve just identified who these people are, and now I’m just trying to see how I can integrate them.

Abbate:

How big is CITRIS? I mean, in terms of people?

Bajcsy:

It’s fluid. But some are more visible than others.

Abbate:

They’re affiliated, but not necessarily doing this full time?

Bajcsy:

Right. Well, none of them are; I mean, very few are full-time. I am full-time, and a few colleagues are full-time, but by and large, all the rest are faculty with normal responsibilities.

On Raising Children

Abbate:

How many children do you have?

Bajcsy:

Two. Well, I have three, actually, because my third child is my stepchild from my husband’s first marriage. But we don’t have any children together. The two children are from my first marriage, and his son is from his first marriage.

Abbate:

Did your two children stay in Czechoslovakia?

Bajcsy:

No, no, no. They live in Urbana-Champaign.

Abbate:

How old were they when they came to the U.S.?

Bajcsy:

Oh, they came after the wall came down—you know, the Berlin Wall came down. My daughter came in 1990, and my son came, I think, in ‘91 or ‘92.

Abbate:

But they were already grown up, obviously.

Bajcsy:

Oh, yes! Right.

Abbate:

So you weren’t actually raising children while you were working?

Bajcsy:

No, actually; they grew up with their father.

Abbate:

And you’re husband’s child . . .

Bajcsy:

Oh, yes; I was raising his child.

Abbate:

Was that difficult, balancing that with your work?

Bajcsy:

Well, I came into his life when he was seven, so he was already in school, so not really. I mean, frankly, we shared the child care. The teenage years were a little difficult. They were more difficult because I was labeled the “European Mother,” you know, so I kind of took a back seat in many regards, and I was more a conciliator between him and his father. It was really his father who was in the front line raising him.

On Mentoring

Abbate:

Did you have any mentors or role models when you were thinking about what career to go into?

Bajcsy:

Well, you know, in some ways I grew up in a family where it was given, taken for granted, that you earn your living, that you don’t get married to be supported by your husband. I guess my inclinations towards engineering and science come from my father, who was a civil engineer. I admired him and adored him immensely. On the other hand, my independence and such came from my mother, who was also a professional and quite independent lady.

When I was very young, I think I admired very much Madame Curie. But later on, I guess I just went by my own steam. There is a dear friend whom I admire quite a bit, but I met her much later. She’s twenty years older than I am, and she’s a prominent biochemist: Mildred Cohn. I have tremendous respect for her.

On Working with Computers

Abbate:

What do you find most satisfying about working with computers?

Bajcsy:

[laughs] Well, they do what you say! It’s the predictability. It’s very comforting, you know. With people: people are unpredictable. With machines, you know what you get; and if you don’t get what you want, you know it’s your fault! [laughs] So somehow you have control. With people—your husband, your children, your colleagues—you have very little control; you can only beg them to behave. With machines, as I said, they do what you program them to do, and if they don’t do the right thing, then you can blame yourself. So I think that’s it.

At the same time, I will tell you—I gave some lectures on this subject—that computers, unlike all other machines, can serve in some ways as an extender of your imagination. Because the space of possibilities is so much bigger than your own head, or on your paper, that you can really explore a much bigger world and play with many different combinations. That’s certainly a tool that hasn’t been used yet, fully. Just think about the wealth of information that is on the Web. It’s immense! You never could keep it on your books, even if you had an encyclopedia that filled this room. Of course, there’s a lot of trash, too; but nevertheless, it’s a machine that will allow you to really create a much bigger world of possibilities.

Abbate:

How do you think the field has changed in the time you’ve been in your area of computing?

Bajcsy:

Oh, the scale has changed! I mean, it’s Moore’s Law. And therefore, it enables you to do things on a much bigger scale than ever before. The bad thing is that it also encourages sloppiness. In the old days, we had to think very carefully about how much memory you used, how much processing time you used, and so you had to really think about your algorithms carefully, in order to fit it into the machine and to make it work. Today, brute-force kinds of algorithms will do just fine, because you have enough memory and you have enough processing speed. So in that sense, that promotes sloppiness. But I think overall, the scale of problems you can solve is just much larger.

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who are thinking of going into computing?

Bajcsy:

I would say, on the positive side, computing is really ideal for women, even those who want to have a family—because you can scale down; you can do it part-time; you can do telecommuting. So it’s an ideal job for women, even if they need to scale down because of the family situation. At the same time, if you really want to climb up in the career, there is no easy way out. You have to have the commitment, and the world is very competitive, and it moves fast—you have to be willing to learn all the time. You have to be really committed, time-wise. So it depends on what you want. I mean, it’s not accidental that Mrs. [Carly] Fiorina, for example, who is the CEO of HP, has no children; and women like her. Or they have to have grown-up children or something, like myself. I mean, I can really devote all my waking hours to this work. But so do men! So it’s the same.

Abbate:

Well, thank you so much for talking with me again!

Bajcsy:

Okay! Good, good!