An Homage to Chris Welty

According to the Internet, Chris Welty is now a research scientist at IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center in upstate New York. He works on knowledge representation and the semantic web and was one of the developers behind Watson, the computer program that kicked ass on Jeopardy! He also taught Intro to Artificial Intelligence at Rensselaer in the late 1980’s. As far as I know, he is alive and well. But life comes and goes and I really like the idea of writing this while he is still around to read it. You don’t always get that chance.

I showed up at Rensselaer in 1986 extremely excited to learn how to turn computers into people. I grew up on science fiction like Asimov’s I Robot and was certain we were on the threshold of true software-based intelligent beings. I knew the average person wasn’t that smart–how hard could it possibly be to write code that could simulate their basic skills?1

In the spring of my sophomore year I took Professor Welty’s Intro to AI class and it was everything I could have hoped for. Professor Welty was not quite as young as I was, but he was certainly as excited as any of us about the box full toys we got to play with. Mini-max algorithms, backward-chaining, forward chaining, Lisp, semantic networks–I could go on and on. I put serious work into that class, but it was also a serious amount of fun. This was the only class in college that actually inspired me to work all night on projects.

You might think that with subject matter this good, anyone could have taught a great class, but you’d be wrong. Now that I spend big chunks of my own time standing in the front of the classroom, I realize all the work he put in and the skills he had. The problem sets were engaging. The in-class explanations of concepts were clear and polished and yet the classes were very conversational. In Professor Welty’s class everyone felt comfortable raising their hand.

I don’t do AI anymore, but I use what I learned in that class every day: Hold yourself to a high standard. Be present. Share. Do what you love. Have fun. Thanks Professor Welty!

  1. It turns out to be very hard, but it also took me many more years to figure that out.