Late & Great: Lotfi Zadeh

The New York Times: “Lotfi Zadeh, the computer scientist and electrical engineer whose theories of “fuzzy logic” rippled across academia and industry, influencing everything from linguistics, economics and medicine to air-conditioners, vacuum cleaners and rice cookers, died on Wednesday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 96 … Emerging from an academic paper Mr. Zadeh published in 1965 as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, ‘fuzzy logic,’ as he called it, was an ambitious effort to close the gap between mathematics and the intuitive way that humans talk, think and interact with the world.”

“If someone asks you to identify ‘a very tall man,’ for instance, you can easily do so — even if you are not given a specific height. Similarly, you can balance a broom handle on your finger without calculating how far it can lean in one direction without toppling over … Rather than creating strict boundaries for real world concepts, he made the boundaries ‘fuzzy.’ Something was not in or out, for example. It sat somewhere on the continuum between in and out, and at any given moment a set of more complex rules defined inclusion.”

Fuzzy logic “could provide a way for insurance companies to assess damage after an earthquake, for instance. Is the damage serious, moderate or minimal under company rules? Fuzzy sets could help … The method could also help build machinery and electronics that gradually move from one state to another, like an automobile transmission, which shifts smoothly from first gear to second, or a thermostat, which flows just as smoothly from hot to cold. Hot and cold need not be precisely defined. They could exist on a continuum.”

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