MIT ATRP (Advanced Television Research Program) / William (Bill) Schreiber

Nicholas Negroponte recently reminded me of Bill Schreiber and the ATRP. It’s fun to read things like this from the 80s.

“Digital signal processing will play a large role in future advanced television systems.”

Advanced Television Research Program
U.S. Air Force – Electronic Systems Division
Contract F1 9628-89-K-0041

Nebeker:
I’ve talked to quite a few people who got their degrees right after World War II. Began their careers then. And I think that is a common feeling, exciting things were happening.

Schreiber:
You could do anything. And education was the key. Neither of my parents graduated from high school. My father eventually got an equivalency certificate, but my mother was basically uneducated. I think she left school in the eighth grade. But both of them believed that education was the key to success. As I said, in my mother’s view, success was to be a high school teacher. My father was a man of few words and didn’t express exactly what he thought success would be. I remember the day I got the notification about winning the Pulitzer Scholarship to go to Columbia. He kissed me for the first time in many years. In retrospect I have to say one of the things that made him so happy was he was not going to have to pay for my college education. My father had a great reluctance to spend money. (I suspect that living through the Depression may have had that effect.) For example, my mother always wanted a house and my father was against it. Well, later on I had enough money to buy them a house — one of the best things I ever did. It made my mother so happy, and it turned out that my father was perfectly willing to have a house as long as he didn’t have to pay for it.

Nebeker:
Well, I think there are people who grew up in very hard times and just didn’t want to spend.

Schreiber:
Well, I was brought up in the Great Depression. I was born in 1925, so I became aware of the world around me during the depression; money was the main topic of discussion in my house. My father never lost his job but he was down to $25 a week. My mother’s table money was $12 or $13 a week. Anything expensive was served at lunch time where I could have it without my father seeing it. I was my mother’s favorite, although I now get along quite well with my older brother. Well, even then we got along quite well, as we were four years apart and there was not much direct competition. In retrospect, my brother was very tolerant of this. He and his friends let me tag along when they went skiing, for example. His social skills were much better than mine, and he was a good athlete and very popular with girls, so he had a life outside the family that must have given him a lot of satisfaction.

Nebeker:
Well, I mean one thing that I also wanted to ask was which of your students have maybe gone on to be most recognized?

Schreiber:
To prevent the students from getting emotionally involved in the wrong approach (a very common failing that was partly responsible for the Challenger disaster) is that at the beginning I absolutely forbade them to invent television systems. I said the first thing we’re going to do is to study what other people are doing. We’re going to look at the problem very carefully, try to set up specifications for something that would be better, and then and only then would we start thinking about specific systems. I didn’t completely succeed in convincing all the students to do that. One of them was a key person in the development of ACTV, the NTSC-compatible system pushed by Sarnoff. I took him aside at one point and said, “Don’t get your career totally tied up with this system because its success or failure is out of your hands; you’re not going to be able to do anything.” Actually, by that time, I had become convinced that such systems were the wrong way to go and eventually the FCC came to agree with me, against the overwhelming opinion of the TV industry.

Mostly I have had very good relations with my students. There were a few with whom I didn’t. We didn’t get along for one reason or another—you know, they didn’t feel I paid enough attention to their ideas. I tried to let them have their head way as much as possible, and yet keep them on the track toward something that I thought would be an appropriate goal. I didn’t do that perfectly. I had a few failures, but my very last successful PhD student was finally a woman. (Women in EECS at MIT have had a poor environment, but it is improving.) She has a lot of self-confidence, and is a good student who did a terrific thesis. She has a marvelous job at HP at an astronomical salary. It just wowed me how much they were willing to pay. She turned down an even bigger offer from a Japanese company. All Japanese companies established plants and labs in the US to take advantage of the cutbacks in R&D and the resulting surplus of highly educated researchers. For example, when GE bought RCA and spun off the Sarnoff Laboratory to the Stanford Research Institute, the first thing SRI did was a 25% job cut. A large proportion of the good people that were let go at that point went to work for Japanese companies. It was awful.

Nebeker:
Another thing I wanted to ask you about was, of course I have been looking in the last year or so at the way signal processing including image processing has developed and how the professional society, which earlier was audio and electric acoustics, how it redefined itself. How do you think image processing has been served by this professional society? This Signal Processing Society?
Schreiber:
I don’t think I’m in a position to give a sound opinion on that. Of course we now have lots of meetings on image processing. This meeting is an example. Such meetings are certainly very good at spreading the word, and if you get the right speakers there is an important educational aspect. People find out what other people are doing and more important how they are thinking about the problems. That’s good. You have to have at least some of that. However, I have the feeling that we now have too many societies, too many meetings, and too many publications, but I don’t know how you can control that.

Nebeker:
For example, when the Transactions on imaging processing was established, I know that the computer society argued that such a publication wasn’t needed. That there was their Transactions on pattern analysis or whatever it was called. I’m just wondering if things that have happened have appeared to you unnecessary or missed steps?

Schreiber:
As I said, we have too many journals, too many meetings, too many papers being published. Almost anything can be published now if you send it to the appropriate journal. When there are so many publications they are all looking for material, and it becomes a sellers’ (authors’) market. If you learn what kind of thing the various journals like, it’s easy enough to write a paper that will be accepted, which certainly was not the case when I started out. Part of the reason we produce too many papers is that there is a tendency in the United States of researchers failing to look at the history of what they are doing. Europeans are quite different in this respect. They tend to read the literature much more carefully. In India, where I spent two years, people think they are really isolated, so they read the literature much more carefully than almost anybody else.

Nebeker:
You mean past publications?

Schreiber:
Yes. So they are aware of what other people do much more so than Americans, who tend to reinvent the wheel.

ETH interview

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