Highlights From the 2016 IEEE Honors Ceremony

The event recognized today's technology giants in artificial intelligence, wireless communications, and more

23 June 2016

I along with hundreds of other people entered Gotham Hall in New York City on 18 June to celebrate the achievements of the brightest minds in engineering at the annual IEEE Honors Ceremony. This year’s award recipients are leaders in artificial intelligence, engineering education, information theory, wireless communications, and other fields.

The evening’s theme, Igniting the Future, paid tribute not only to this year’s recipients but also to the innovators who came before them and those who undoubtedly will be next. IEEE President Barry Shoop said in his opening remarks, “Just as the accomplishments of past giants sparked tonight’s recipients to achieve great things, the work of our honorees will ignite the desire within future engineers and educators to build upon and improve these achievements with innovations of their own.” Shoop and 2016 IEEE President-Elect Karen Bartleson were the masters of ceremony.

Among those honored was Life Fellow G. David Forney Jr. [below], recipient of this year’s IEEE Medal of Honor for his contributions to realizing reliable high-speed data communications. Sponsored by the IEEE Foundation, the medal is IEEE’s highest award.

Highlights of the evening included a speech by Fellow Moshe Kam, 2011 IEEE president, who received the IEEE Haraden Pratt Award “for original and high-impact contributions to IEEE’s Educational Activities, expanding IEEE’s global reach and effectiveness.”

Kam shared how, as a first-year student in 1972 at a small engineering school in Israel, he wanted to compete with the larger university to the north. Because that school had an IEEE student branch, Kam wanted his school to have one too, so he formed one. Only he never registered the branch, and the students were not IEEE members, as is the requirement. When IEEE notified the school about it not meeting the requirements, Kam got his first one-on-one meeting with the school’s dean, and the experience launched Kam’s involvement with the organization. He has been a volunteer for more than 40 years.

Geoffrey Hinton received the IEEE/RSE James Clerk Maxwell Medal “for pioneering and sustained contributions to machine learning, including developments in deep neural networks.” Hinton came up with the concept of training each layer of a neural network—which led to deep learning, a relatively new form of artificial intelligence. Deep learning allows a computer system to connect the dots from many different areas of knowledge to make the best decision possible. Hinton, a University of Toronto professor emeritus, is a distinguished researcher at Google.

“Fifty years ago, the fathers of artificial intelligence convinced everybody that logic was the key to intelligence; somehow we had to get computers to do logical reasoning. The alternative approach, which they thought was crazy, was to forget logic and try to understand how networks of brain cells learned things,” he said in his acceptance speech. “A few years ago, we [Hinton and his students] finally got neural networks to work better than the existing technologies in speech and object recognition. Now neural networks are everywhere, and it looks like the crazy approach is winning.”

Christos H. Papadimitriou received the IEEE John von Neumann Medal “for providing a deeper understanding of computational complexity and its implications for approximation algorithms, artificial intelligence, economics, database theory, and biology.” Papadimitriou started his speech by saying, “I can see 300 engineers wondering: What on earth is complexity? Frankly, complexity is a mathematical way of expressing something that we all know, namely that life is hard.” He is an electrical engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Fellow Abbas El Gamal received the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal “for contributions to network multiuser information theory and for wide-ranging impact on programmable circuit architectures.” El Gamal is the chair of the electrical engineering department at Stanford. In his speech, he shared how Hamming was passionate about finding a new approach to teaching mathematics.

Hamming wrote: “The way mathematics is currently taught, it is exceedingly dull. In the calculus book we are currently using on my campus, I found no single problem whose answer I felt the student would care about!” A similar thing can be said about today’s electrical engineering education, El Gamal said, adding, “As EE undergraduate enrollment in top universities has dwindled, and students interested in engineering have been flocking to computer science, and even to mechanical engineering, we as EE educators and as a society must rethink the way we teach EE.”

And then there was Forney, who said he was humbled by those greats who had been Medal of Honor recipients before him. When historians consider this era, he said, “I think they’ll say the No. 1 thing that was going on in the development of the human race was the extraordinary revolution in electronics, computing, and communications that we’re all so familiar with and that has impacted everybody’s lives.

“I am very pleased to have played a small part in this huge accomplishment.”

Do you have a highlight to share from this year’s IEEE Honors Ceremony? You can watch the event below in its entirety.

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