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World-Renowned Scientist of Iranian Heritage Honoured


By Azim Ahmed, Salam Toronto


Lotfi Asker Zadeh Receives Honorary Doctorate from Ryerson University



When he was 10 years old, Lotfi Asker Zadeh and his family were forced to leave his home country of Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union, relocating to Iran in the midst of religious prosecution. It was a period of upheaval and struggle for the bright boy.


This Tuesday, Zadeh, also known as the "father of fuzzy logic", received an Honorary Doctorate from Ryerson University. During a convocation ceremony for 2008 graduates in Engineering, Professor Lotfi Zadeh was given the award in a packed house at the Ryerson Theatre in downtown Toronto.


"To me this award has special significance because it has been bestowed upon me by a Canadian university," Zadeh said in his keynote speech. "I would like to tell you that Canada and the Canadian people have always occupied a very warm spot in my heart."


Zadeh was born in 1921 in Baku, Azerbaijan. After moving to Iran, he graduated from the American College in Tehran, and received his B.S degree in electrical engineering from the University of Tehran in 1942. He then migrated to the United States in 1944, obtaining his MSc degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1946, followed by his PhD in 1949, both in electrical engineering. After teaching for a period at Columbia University in New York City, Professor Zadeh joined the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of California-Berkeley in 1959, serving as its Chairman from 1963 to 1968.


In his introduction to Zadeh, Alex Ferworn, an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Ryerson, added, "Professor Zadeh is one of the most referenced authors in the field of Applied Mathematics and Information Sciences."


Currently, Zadeh is a Professor Emeritus at Berkeley and is also serving as the Director of the Berkeley Initiative in Soft Computing.


In his address to the graduates, the 87 year-old academic targeted today's society and its infatuation with money.


"I'm merely joining a chorus of those that find it disconcerting to find money play such an important role in all strata of society. Especially in the television media, but also in the Universities."


He explained how on a recent visit to a major University, he was told that all that mattered was that as a Professor your brought money in. It was prioritized higher than helping students graduate, doing important research or getting published.


"Well, the fact that I heard this at a major University really disturbed me," Zadeh related. "But you see tendencies along those lines everywhere. There are pressures now to convert Universities into businesses."


The advertising and commercial culture he called "by nature, untruthful" can be blamed for much of this materialization of society, he says.


"We have this (constant commercials) barraged throughout the day, that is intrinsically untruthful. Young people, in particular, are influenced to become materialistic. They want an education only because it is a ticket to a 'better' life. Education will enable you to buy a BMV, instead of a Ford or Chevrolet."


Professor Zadeh related the example of the cost of political campaigns, as Barack Obama - whom Zadeh incidentally is a strong supporter of - reportedly recently spent $500 million merely to become the Democratic Party candidate.


Zadeh, whose mother was Russian and father from Ardabil province in northern Iran, has a long list of accomplishments. He has already received 26 other honorary doctorates. He has single-authored over 200 papers and serves on the editorial boards of more than 67 journals. He is also a member of several National Academies of Sciences around the world; including Poland, Finland, South Korea, Bulgaria and Russia.


But the Academic is perhaps best known for his work on fuzzy sets and its applications to artificial intelligence, linguistics, logic, and expert systems. His work is currently focused on fuzzy logic, soft computing, computing with words, and the newly developed computational theory of perceptions and natural language. 


Ferworn, giving his introduction to Zadeh, related a story of their first meeting: "I met Professor Zadeh for the first time as a Graduate Student in 1991. He gave a fascinating presentation that seemed to consist mainly of slides of letters of rejection, including criticism and personal attacks from the academic community concerning his concept of fuzzy."


"At the conclusion of this presentation to me, Professor Zadeh paused for a moment and made the astute observation that all of the condemnations and criticisms he had received were from extremely intelligent people," Ferworn recalled. "And that even intelligent people can, and often are, wrong. I knew from that moment that this man deserved an award. Because he a true innovator who is not afraid to fight."


Lotfi Zadeh also discussed growing up in Azerbaijan, then a part of the Soviet Union. There was little tolerance for religions, and "anyone rumoured of believing in God was ignored." His family then fled back to Iran where he spent time at an American missionary school, as well as Iranian schools where any Christian that entered had to wash the walls of the school.


Due to this upbringing, Zadeh has embraced and appreciated his time in North America, and the tolerance and freedoms it provides. He is a dual Iranian-American citizen.


But he still dismayed with where he sees society heading here in the west.


"I believe it is hurtful for a society to be dominated by a desire for money," he says. "I would like to urge you to join me in the chorus who feel concern over becoming a society whose values are dominated by a quest for money."


Listening to him speak with such conviction, its clear that it is this dogged determination to not accept anything but the best, from himself or from society, that has made Lotfi Zadeh a world-renowned figure in the Sciences.

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