USC Information Sciences Institute 50th Anniversary Celebration

September 11, 2022

This event included opening remarks from Craig Knoblock, executive director of the Information Sciences Institute, followed by USC President Carol L. Folt and Yannis Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Welcome Remarks – Craig Knoblock

Good evening everyone. I welcome you all to the celebration of ISI’s 50th anniversary.

First, I wanted to acknowledge that 21 years ago, on September 11, 2001, almost 3,000 people lost their lives during the attacks at the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Please observe a moment of silence remembering those we lost that day.

Alumni, faculty members, researchers and staff, students, collaborators from USC and beyond: you have all contributed to ISI’s success and it’s a matter of great pride to see our organization growing and achieving more than its founders had ever dreamed of.

Let me tell you a little bit about how it all started.

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg was an analyst working at RAND on a study about the Vietnam War, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. When President Nixon announced his plans to increase the war effort, Ellsberg, in an effort to stop the war, leaked the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000 page, 46 volume, top-secret document, to The New York Times

As a result of this, the department of defense significantly cut RAND’s funding in retaliation, which in turn resulted in a significant cut to the computer science department at RAND, which was being led by Keith Uncapher, one of our founders. 

He decided to create a new entity, along with colleagues Tom Ellis and Bob Balzer. We are honored to have Bob Balzer here with us tonight.

They went to UCLA first, but the paperwork was going to take six months and they did not have six months to waste. So they went to USC and closed the deal in a single dinner with Zohrab Kaprielian, the USC provost at the time. You won’t hear me say this often but: thank you, UCLA!

They wanted to be on the Westside because that’s where they lived – RAND was in Santa Monica. So they drew a triangle between their homes and found the Marina Towers, which were still in construction at the time. Tom visited a few other buildings for good measure, but they never considered going elsewhere. ISI was the first tenant of the building, and we’ve even heard that several floors did not have exterior walls when they moved in!

Let me tell you a bit about what ISI looked like in its first year of operation. The first contract started on May 17, 1972. This was a three-year DARPA research contract for $6 million, which would be about $42 million today adjusted for inflation.  

In their first year, they reported having 26 researchers, 17 support staff, 7 consultants and 11 students, including two Ph.D. students working on their dissertations. 

And they hosted many seminar talks at ISI, including a number from luminaries such as Gerald Sussman from MIT on artificial intelligence, Vint Cerf from Stanford on network characteristics, Alan Kay from Xerox on teaching programming to children, and Anita Jones from Carnegie-Mellon on protection in programming systems.

The research program in the first year focused on 5 areas: automatic programming, time-shared microprogramming, computer software assurance, manufacturing automation, and networking. 

They were already developing packet-switched network communications technology of voice, data, and image for remote conferencing!

In just one year, ISI had already built and was operating the computer system for the ARPANET with 400 active users. Prior to that work, the ARPANET had about 30 active users.

Today we are leaders in artificial intelligence, in cybersecurity, in microelectronics, in informatics systems, in quantum computing. Our visionary scientists push the limits of computing and look for new areas to apply their work, because we believe that creativity is the key to great research.

As one of our team leaders brilliantly says: “At ISI, making a difference is not only about how brilliant you are, it’s about how creative you are. This is what will lead you to doing great things in computer science.”

And I couldn’t agree more. Our strength is our people, and ISI is a very special place to work for those who join us. We believe in autonomy, in collaboration, and in experimentation. We think outside the box, we want to solve real world problems for real people – this takes courage, determination, and imagination. 

As Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, puts it: “ISI is a place where imagination reigns, and people are free to roam a universe of ideas. You need people who are willing to take time and energy to figure out how those ideas are going to work, how they are going to break, and how much benefit they can bring.”

For the next 50 years, I want imagination to continue to reign at ISI. Our research must expand further, become even more collaborative with other disciplines. 

Think about how we could contribute to the medical field, to environmental research, and more!

As the size and amount of data in all disciplines continues to grow, ISI is perfectly positioned to collaborate. This is the future of computing.

My goal for ISI is to continue to grow the Institute’s research funding, to double the number of faculty members and students, and to hire the supporting staff necessary to achieve this ambitious growth. 

I know that we will play a key role in the future USC Silicon Beach campus because our vocation and responsibility is to enrich our society, and this starts with education. We are ready to shape the future of computing research and envision making the world a better place for the next 50 years.

We’re so pleased to be joined this evening by USC’s 12th president – Dr. Carol L. Folt.

She’s been a great friend to ISI from the very start – and the moonshots she’s shared in her vision for the university put so much of our work and our community front and center. 

President Folt is committed to the pursuit of academic excellence and innovation throughout the university. And she continues to bring her leadership to the areas of sustainability and building a culture of trust and accountability.

Known for always putting students first, she is a collaborative academic leader and a life scientist with faculty appointments in marine and environmental biology, civil and environmental engineering, and preventive medicine.

Please join me in welcoming President Folt.

President Carol L. Folt

Thank you, Craig.  And hello everyone. It’s wonderful to be here and celebrate this milestone for ISI, Viterbi, and USC.

First: my congratulations to Craig and the entire ISI family. We’re celebrating five decades of ISI staff and faculty – and I understand this group includes about 2000 people.

ISI is currently home to 34 faculty, 220 full-time staff, and about 150 students.

You’ve accomplished so much in five decades, innovations that are central to the tech transformation sweeping society. Examples include:

  • The invention of the Internet Domain Name System.
  • The first integrated circuit foundry service.
  • The first worldwide live video streaming of a concert – The Rolling Stones – in 1994.
  • And some of the earliest work in online commerce.

Craig talked about ISI’s beginnings and that fateful dinner between its founders and USC’s former provost, Zohrab Kaprielian. How fortunate USC was able to cut through the red tape.

But it’s also not surprising. I’ve seen USC turn on a dime. Great universities need to be dynamic, capable of moving at warp speed when needed, and making great choices.

Provost Kaprielian clearly knew a good thing when he saw it. At the time, the creation of ISI was very attractive for USC – not only because of its cutting-edge work, but also because it was fully funded by DARPA, then known as ARPA.

We all know it can take years to create this type of entity and to find the funding for it – and USC was not the only university ISI had approached.

But leveraging USC’s ability to move quickly, he sealed the deal.

He brought together smart people with an expansive vision, and with it, USC’s standing in computer science began to soar.

The timing also was critical. There was a lot going on in 1972 – for context:

  • It was three years after the first person walked on the moon.
  • The U.S. was focused on competing with the Soviet Union in technology, and Bobby Fischer beat defending champion Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship
  • NASA launched the Space Shuttle program.
  • The Dow Jones closed above 1000 for the first time in history.
  • Arrests were conducted at the White House, marking the beginning of the Watergate scandal.
  • Historic Title IX legislation was passed, completely changing US sports and education.
  • And on March 24th, The Godfather was released.

It was in this historical context—a time of innovation, turmoil, advancing tech, and global competition—that ISI was born and moved quickly to become a leader on the world stage.

Dean Yortsos will talk about ISI’s central place at Viterbi. About 50 percent of Viterbi’s research funding comes through ISI, and for 50 years, you’ve been mentoring computer scientists and innovators.

You also were the first tech outpost in Silicon Beach – which now counts more than 500 tech companies and startups – and we’re now working on new initiatives and new moonshots to advance ISI’s leadership even further.

Many can talk about what has made ISI so successful, but even as a relative newcomer I can see that one big driver has been a consistent focus on the most pressing needs and opportunities.

Another driver is the urgency and relevance of your work — and we see that in articles about deep fakes, hackers, and the under-representation of females in literature in The Guardian, the BBC, and CNN.

I also see a consistent template for how you work that drives your success. You collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!

For 50 years, your collaborations have covered everything from fundamental questions to futuristic implementation. And they’ve stretched from within USC to across the world. 

I’d like to share a couple recent collaborations I’ve learned about.

Yannis will speak about Viterbi, but for our Keck School of Medicine, you’re providing AI algorithms to help restore vision for millions, and creating models to measure the brain’s age and prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

With Dornsife, your help in imaging the changing brain of a live zebrafish – has direct application for treating PTSD.

And with Annenberg, you’ve combined AI and social media to measure how bots may influence presidential elections.

And here are a couple examples of state-of-the-art partnerships with other universities.

With Morehead State and MIT Lincoln Labs, you’re conducting a Space Force Satellite design project.

With Columbia, you’re building a traffic map for the internet that shows how users engage services.

And with Brown, you’re working on advanced drones that can detect wildfires early on.

Just as far-reaching, are ISI’s partnerships with government agencies and large tech companies, such as advancing the NASA International Space Station, quantum simulations with IBM, and trailblazing work to detect spacecraft anomalies with Northrop Grumman.

So, my congratulations to the entire ISI family tonight.

Legendary artist Andy Warhol famously said, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

That sounds like all of you at ISI – 50 years and going even stronger

Congratulations again and Fight On!

Craig Knoblock

Thank you, Carol.

Joining us tonight as well is Yannis Yortsos, the dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the Zohrab Kaprielian Dean’s Chair in Engineering.

Yannis joined the USC faculty of chemical and petroleum engineering in 1978.

As dean of engineering, he articulated in 2008 the concept of Engineering+, positioning engineering as the enabling discipline of our times, and has been actively engaged in the effort to “change the conversation about engineering,” which is a vision I fully share with him.

Dean Yortsos is also very involved in improving diversity in engineering. Between 2012 and 2017, he was the chair of the Diversity Committee of the Engineering Deans Council. He has spearheaded an engineering diversity initiative, now adopted by more than 250 engineering schools nationwide.

Yannis has been an amazing ally and partner to ISI, and I look forward to continuing to work with such an inspiring leader.

Please join me in welcoming Dean Yortsos.

Dean Yannis Yortsos

Thank you very much. I am privileged to be here tonight to represent the Viterbi School at ISI’s 50th anniversary – its golden anniversary.

In 2005 we celebrated 100 years of USC engineering. Then, ISI was just 33 years old! Today, at the golden age of 50, ISI has now been a part of the school’s history for more than one third of its existence. Notably, one of the most important thirds, because in terms of our exponential era, time does not scale linearly—and during which period, the growth has been astounding.

In his book of the history of the school, A Remarkable Trajectory, our own George Bekey, acknowledged father of robotics, paints the remarkable ascent of USC engineering in the last 60 years or so. I am here to say that this ascent would have been impossible without ISI and its extraordinary innovations and accomplishments.    

The celebratory video which I hope all have seen or will see (including any Emmy or Oscar-voting members!) tells magnificently the history of ISI and its worldwide impact.

ISI grew in parallel with the growth of computer science, with which it is tightly interwoven, and has contributed in a mighty way to what the world is today.

It is interesting to ponder briefly the term information sciences. A few years ago, James Gleick, the author of Chaos, wrote in 2012 a magnificent book for the non-experts: The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. It describes how this generally abstract concept—the information—is intrinsic to all sciences and all disciplines. It is intrinsic to our world.

Gleick described how information is represented, how it moves, how it is transformed, and how it is quantified. How it opens a world of concepts and abstractions. ISI excels in all of this.

Information sciences can be seen as a prelude and co-citizen to computer science, its other equivalent, which also encapsulates the foundational elements of the physical world (electrons, quantum, atoms, and molecules). In other languages information sciences is also known as informatics, or informatique in French. Its Greek equivalent, πληροφορικη, carries with it the meaning of completeness.

As recently as three days ago, our own spectacular leader Yolanda Gil received the Geological Society of America’s geoinformatics award! We joked about how this term informatics keeps surviving with other new equivalents, such as data sciences, taking new forms.

Paul Rosenbloom, another ISI pioneer, also about ten years ago wrote a spectacular treatise, although more for the experts, on the semantics of information and computer science. Entitled On Computing: The Fourth Great Scientific Domain, Paul argues that computing (read: information science) is not merely a form of engineering but a scientific domain on a par with the physical, life, and social sciences.

Which brings me to the following closely related domain. Just like Maslow’s hierarchy for individuals, our world can benefit from a classification of needs. We can put them in the following four buckets:

sustainability, health, security, and enriching life (or perhaps joie de vivre).

Information sciences and computing in general, are central to the enriching life bucket, but they also permeate and enable all others, whether in sustainability, health, or security (from cyber to national).

Starting as the institute that helped with the foundations of the Internet, and its machinery, protocols, and empowerment—such DNS and Voice over Internet Protocol—ISI continues being the place where such innovations continue to enrich life and society, whether in the present version or in an upcoming decentralized Web 3.0. Or whether in advancing new computing methods in AI, ML, and DS; or in quantum computing, building on our establishing at ISI the first operational quantum computer through our D-Wave partnership.    

But equally importantly, ISI has and continues to provide solutions to vexing problems:

  • In security from cyber to electronics and supply chains, and to MOSIS and its future incarnations;
  • In health, including its new AI for Health initiative;
  • And in the rapidly growing areas of sustainability, e.g. through the use of AI for a number of applications from wildfires to agriculture.

In parallel, ISI brings leading expertise in establishing trustworthiness to information in many platforms, including the pervasive social media.

And ISI helps grow our innovation ecosystem in Silicon Beach through its translational discoveries, from NPL to Sports Analytics to partnerships with leading corporations.

In the Viterbi leadership retreat last week, I asked the question: As we are celebrating this year two 50-year anniversaries in Viterbi (ISI and DEN), what is the magic recipe that makes such initiatives grow, flourish and last for so many decades in our exponentially changing world?

I don’t think I have the complete answer. But I believe that the following elements are always needed.

Bold, uninhibited vision to accomplish something new, exciting, transformative, ahead of its time.

Agility and speed, to implement, launch, and materialize the vision. The story about how fast ISI formed at USC is legendary—and the same also applies to AMI, but that’s for another time.

Steadfast commitment to the vision, despite obstacles. The strong nourishment, support, trust, and confidence by the institution. And the nimbleness to leverage new opportunities, and pivoting to address unintended consequences and course corrections.

ISI’s story is just that. With the incredible power of its faculty and staff, and the empowerment by the university growing increasingly stronger over the years, ISI has flourished and created a model that is the envy of the world. It is now ideally suited to increase its current footprint—intellectual and geographical—across the entire university enterprise. We hope that this will be enabled with the new Frontiers of Computing initiative.

For five decades, ISI grew from a concept to a powerful real entity, to a national asset. In the process it has helped USC reach new heights. Many were mentioned before. I will simply cite two.

The writing of the successful proposal to the U.S. Army that led to the establishment of ICT, the other spectacular institute in information technology, in ICT’s case via virtual reality. ICT would not have been possible without ISI.

And ISI’s help in transforming DEN@Viterbi, our acclaimed distance education network, to its 2.0 version. Indeed, in 2001 ISI researchers worked closely with members of DEN, to move the platform entirely online within a year. Thus, DEN became one of the nation’s only fully web-based university distance education networks, with the power to reach any student with an internet connection anywhere in the world.

A historical note: This was made possible only through the support of the Lord Foundation, that allowed us the use of $1 million to accomplish this transition. What a wonderful triad story.

Perhaps that’s why DEN was able to move 6,000 graduate students and faculty to online learning almost overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person learning at the university in March 2020.

ISI’s geographical footprint has also grown from its present location, established in 1972, to the opening of a new office in Arlington, Virginia, in 1997 (which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year) to its office in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 2016. We will hold an event on October 3 in Washington, D.C. to mark that seminal moment for the Arlington office, along with the 50th of ISI.

Keith Uncapher, Herb Schorr, and Prem Natarajan all marked their tenures as ISI director with a new physical expansion. Craig, is near-earth space the next ISI office?

As I close my remarks, I would like to pay tribute to many people: the phenomenal ISI researchers, past and present; the ISI leadership—Keith, Herb, Prem and Craig, to whom I might also add our late colleague John O’Brien, who helped co-lead ISI for a short period of time of a critical transition; to USC leadership and President Folt for her support of the Institute; and also to the Keston family, who philanthropically supported the executive director position. Dan, thank you for being here today. We look forward to strengthening our partnership to keep engineering a better world for all humanity.