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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

50 years ago, they started a revolution still going strong

Collectively, they have been with Carolina’s Department of Computer Science a total of 132 years.

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BROOKS

Fred Brooks came here to found the department in 1964, and Stephen Pizer arrived four years later with his newly minted Ph.D. from Harvard. Pizer’s dissertation adviser told him about the exciting new program that Brooks – another Harvard alum – was building at Carolina.

By the time Henry Fuchs showed up in 1978, the department, under Brooks’ leadership, had carved out the beginnings of what continues to be its niche in an ever-changing field.

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PIZER

Other departments Fuchs had visited saw computer science as a scholarly pursuit where the measure of productivity was the number of papers you published and the prestige of the journals in which they appeared.

“From day one, the part that was striking to me is that this is a much more practically oriented, problem-solving department than any of the other computer science departments I have visited,” Fuchs said.

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FUCHS

The professors here were not interested in producing papers, he said. They were interested in making products that people, including fellow scientists in other departments, might find useful.

The value of toolsmiths

The architect behind that idea was Brooks, who led the department he founded for the next 20 years. He had come to Carolina from IBM where he was a project manager for the IBM System/360 family of computers.

“Fred came here and said a computer scientist is a toolsmith, and like a swordsmith, his value is measured by the lifespan of his clients,” said Pizer.

That idea stuck and both Pizer and Fuchs embraced it with zeal.

With research interests in image analysis and display, Pizer came to Carolina intent on collaborating with a faculty member in biomedical engineering, only to discover that the faculty member had left by the time he arrived.

“Having done my dissertation on medical imaging, I went to the chairman of the radiology department and told him I wanted to collaborate on research, and he said, ‘Research? What’s that?’ So it took a while to get connections with the medical school.”

But he persisted.

In 1974, Pizer founded the Medical Image Display and Analysis Group, or MIDAG, which formalized the link between the computer science department and other departments across campus, ranging from statistics to psychology to radiology and surgery.

Twenty-seven years later, Pizer, Kenan Professor of Computer Science, joined forces with Sarang Joshi, who at the time was an assistant professor in the department, and radiation oncology professor Ed Chaney to form Morphormics, a spinoff company that developed medical imaging software systems that would automatically recognize and extract anatomical structures from medical images.

The company was later sold to a publicly traded radiation oncology company for $5.7 million. Today, Pizer’s research interests include human and computer vision and graphics, with a heavy focus in recent years on applying these tools to medical imaging. Toward that end, he holds adjunct appointments in biomedical engineering, radiation oncology and radiology.

Fuchs earned his Ph.D. from the University of Utah where he learned that computer graphics could be more than lines on a screen, and instead become a “window into a virtual world created by the computer.”

“That idea always charmed me,” said Fuchs, whose research work in rendering algorithms led to the creation in the 1980s of Pixel-Planes, a succession of logic-enhanced memory systems, several of which were the fastest graphics processors of their day.

Looking to the future

This is the year marking the department’s 50th anniversary, but these three pioneering computer scientists continue to look forward even as they pause to celebrate a glorious past each had a hand in shaping.

They agree there were a lot of things that were done right, including Brooks’ focus on crafting a department that complemented the computer science departments at Duke and N.C. State.

The four areas of specialization that Brooks began developing – computer graphics, medical imaging, computer architecture and software engineering – remain core strengths today.

Yet, talking for very long about all this history makes all three men a bit uneasy. For one thing, Brooks insisted, “memory fails.” For another, he added, computer scientists worth their silicon do not live in the past. They want to inhabit the future – to imagine how technology will continue to shape it.

It was that very idea, Brooks said, that led to the creation of the department to begin with.

And none of the three are through imagining.

Fuchs said the Pixel Plane machines that he and partner John Poulton created were as big as a refrigerator, but the increasing power and decreasing size of graphics boards now allows him to envision a day when people will not be carrying their computers or smart phones, but will be wearing them – perhaps in their glasses frames, or in their belt buckles, or even in their shoes.

And that future may be closer at hand than people realize.

In August, PC Magazine featured the work of Fuchs and graduate student Andrew Maimone on a new technology called “Pinlight Display” that puts wide field-of-view, computer-generated images onto a user’s eyeglasses without any bulky optical add-ons.

Being developed in collaboration with leading graphics company Nvidia, the technology promises to enhance computer gaming, medical displays, and many new “wearable” applications.

Pizer said it was gratifying to attend the dedication this past spring of Marsico Hall because it reminded him how far his field of work has advanced since he arrived here looking for research partners at the medical school. The building houses basic and translational research and features state-of-the art imaging equipment that will fundamentally advance knowledge of cancer and other diseases.

“I was sitting at the reception and realized this guy (me) – who avoids administration to the point that I have a reputation for being really good at it – had an influence on the creation of that building.”

More recently, Pizer said, he bumped into an old friend he first met when the man was a graduate student from China. “He was telling me about his granddaughter about to be born and how he had just seen a beautiful 3D image of her in utero. I told him, ‘You know, Henry and I developed a major part of the technology that allowed that picture to be made.’”

Brooks said he still gets a kick out of looking over the shoulders of colleagues he has collaborated with through the years. “I wouldn’t still be doing it at 83 if it wasn’t still a lot of fun,” he said.

As for his vision for the future: “I tell high school students I picked the perfect career for the last half of the 20th century. It has been satisfactory in every respect and exciting at every point.”

But, he adds, if he were choosing a career for the first half of the 21st century, it would be at the intersection of computation and biology.

“Biologists are just beginning to catch on with what can be done with computation, and computer scientists are just beginning to catch on with all the fascinating problems there are in that field, “Brooks said.

“The intellectual explosion that is going to come in that intersection in the next 50 years is going to be incredible.

“And I tell them that I would be riding that rocket.”