Obituary: SCS Mourns Loss of Computer Visionary, Entrepreneur Edward Fredkin

Matthew WeinWednesday, August 16, 2023

Edward Fredkin, one of the most influential computer science theorists and thinkers of his generation who spent part of his career at CMU, died June 13. He was 88.

Fifty years ago, few people, if any, could possibly have foreseen the way artificial intelligence would grip our imaginations and consume the public discourse. But if anyone did, it was probably Edward Fredkin.

Fredkin, one of the most influential computer science theorists and thinkers of his generation who spent part of his career as a distinguished career professor at Carnegie Mellon University, died June 13 in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was 88.

"Ed could have more ideas in a day than many of us could in a month," said Raj Reddy, the Moza Bint Nasser University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics in CMU's School of Computer Science, who knew and worked with Fredkin since the mid-1970s. "Some of them were harebrained ideas, but there were a lot of very good ones."

Numerous innovations and theories bear his name, from the Fredkin Gate to Fredkin's Paradox — his ideas on digital philosophy. Fredkin conceived of everything as nothing more than bits of information, and the universe as one all-encompassing computer. Information, he said, was more fundamental than matter and energy.

Fredkin was born Oct. 2, 1934, in Los Angles to Russian immigrant parents. Though he spent much of his career in and around computing, Fredkin's initial interests included chemistry and physics. After graduating from high school in Los Angeles, he enrolled in the California Institute of Technology, but dropped out during his sophomore year to enlist in the Air Force. He trained as a fighter pilot, but the military found his technical skills impossible to ignore and detailed him to the Lincoln Laboratory, a Pentagon-funded innovation hub at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Upon exiting the service, Fredkin spent several years on the industry side of the still-nascent computing field. He founded Information International Inc., which produced high-precision digital-to-film scanners. It also made him one of tech's first and most successful entrepreneurs.

In 1968, Fredkin joined the faculty at MIT as a full professor, an unheard-of leap in academia for someone without a bachelor's degree. During his tenure there, he headed Project MAC, a research initiative that made advances in multiple access computers, operating systems and an AI precursor known as machine-aided cognition.

In 1979, Reddy invited Fredkin to speak at a conference he was chairing in Japan.

"In AI, there are all these problems that we call grand challenges, and I suggested to Ed that it would be good to set up some prizes for these," Reddy said. "He agreed, and we set up the Fredkin Prize in 1980."

Using money Fredkin donated to CMU, the Fredkin Prize promised $100,000 to the designers of the first computer capable of defeating a world chess champion.

In 1984, Fredkin left MIT and joined the CMU faculty as a distinguished career professor. That year, the university awarded him the Dickson Prize for Science.

In 1997, an IBM-built chess computer called Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, the reigning world chess champion, and took home the Fredkin Prize. Later that year, Fredkin and CMU used the money left over from the challenges to endow two chairs in SCS. Tom Mitchell and Red Whittaker received the first two Fredkin professorships.

"Beyond all that Ed was and did in the world and for CMU, he was wonderful to and for me in so many ways," Whittaker said. "For he and Raj to endow a chair for me was such a validation and empowerment at a time when robotics didn't have many chairs."

In addition to his time at CMU and MIT, Fredkin taught physics at Boston University. He also never lost his love for flying and became an accomplished hobbyist pilot.

"During the DARPA Grand Challenge, no one was allowed on the course and even communicating status was disallowed," Whittaker said. "Ed pointed out that DARPA hadn't controlled airspace over the course, so he wanted to fly low and slow overhead to convey real-time status to me about how we and the competitors were doing. Who does that?"

Fredkin is survived by his wife, Joycelin; sons Richard and Michael; daughters Sally and Susan; six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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