Nils Nilsson, pioneer in robotics and artificial intelligence, dies at 86

Nils Nilsson, professor of computer science, in the Gates Building on the Stanford University campus. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

April 24, 2019 – J. Nilsson, the Kumagai Professor of Engineering, emeritus, in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford University, died April 23, 2019, at his home in Medford, OR, after a brief stay in hospice. He was 86.

Nilsson is best known for his foundational work in robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning dating to in the earliest days of the fields.

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Nilsson earned his PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford in 1958 and immediately began serving in the U.S. Air Force. After his discharge in 1961, he took a position at Stanford Research Institute, which was then still affiliated with the University. Nilsson was employed for the next 23 years at SRI, working on neural networks and statistical approached to robotic problem-solving. He would eventually rise to lead SRI from 1980 to 1984.

In 1985, Nilsson, joined the Stanford faculty as chair of the Department of Computer Science, a role in which he served until 1990. It was unusual that an outsider would be brought in as chair of a department, but Nilsson was well known as a lecturer and intellectual force in artificial intelligence.

The year he joined the Computer Science department, Nilsson was charged with overseeing its historic transition from the School of Humanities and Sciences to the School of Engineering. His time at Stanford was marked by his continued leadership in the field and a burgeoning international profile. He also mentored many top names in the field during his time on faculty.

“In the mid-70s, Nils invited me to SRI to work on my PhD,” said Jean-Claude Latombe, former department chair and head of the Artificial Intelligence group at Stanford. “He became my de facto adviser and traveled to Grenoble just to sit on my defense committee. No one had such a great impact on my professional life.”

Robotics leader

Between 1966 and 1972, Nilsson co-directed the creation of an autonomous robot known affectionately as, “SHAKEY,” after the way the top-heavy robot would shudder as made its way about in stops-and-starts.

Directed by a human operator typing in instructions, SHAKEY could negotiate its way around a room filled with large objects using various electrical sensors, a sonar range-finder and an integrated video camera, all the while communicating wirelessly with a state-of-the-art mainframe computer. In 1969-70, SHAKEY garnered a certain media celebrity after profiles appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic and Life, which referred to SHAKEY as the “first electronic person.”

Nilsson was noted for helping to design and write the algorithms that helped SHAKEY make decisions and plan the most-efficient course, Stanford Research Institute Problem Solver (STRIPS) and A*. The intellectual progeny of those algorithms that are still in use today.

Nilsson authored or co-authored at least nine books, including 2010’s The Quest for Artificial Intelligence: A History of Ideas and Achievements from Cambridge University Press and Principles of Artificial Intelligence from Morgan Kauffman Publishers, a publishing house he co-founded. Nilsson also contributed chapters to numerous other books, published frequently in the scientific press.

Likewise, he served on the editorial boards of the journal Artificial Intelligence and of the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research and as an editor of the Journal of the Association for Computing Machinery. He was also a president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI). Nilsson was also elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.

He was honored with a number of industry awards, including Neural-Network Pioneer Award from the IEEE, the Research Excellence Award from the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, and the Distinguished Service Award for lifetime achievement from the Association for Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

Colleague and mentor

As respected as he was as an engineer, Nilsson was equally beloved as a colleague and mentor to many. As news spread across campus of his death, notes of remembrance flowed in.

“Nils was a kind, thoughtful, inspiring person who helped shape the department in a formative era,” remembers John Mitchell, a fellow professor of computer science and current department chair. “He was unusually supportive of young faculty and always put our collective success ahead of any personal recognition or reward. All of us who knew him will sorely miss him.”

Nils John Nilsson, the oldest of five sons, to Walter and Pauline Nilsson, was born Feb. 6, 1933, in Saginaw, MI, where he lived until age 11 when his family relocated to Southern California. He attended high school in Glendale, CA, where he was valedictorian. He then entered Stanford University, where he earned his master’s degree in 1956 and doctorate in 1958. A program at the time allowed him to forego his bachelor’s degree to work directly to his master’s. He retired in 1995.

He is survived by his wife of 27 years, Grace Abbott, of Medford, OR; daughter Kristen Farley of Pasadena, CA; son Lars Nilsson of Piedmont, CA; Grace’s four sons from a previous marriage and their spouses; as well as 12 grandchildren. He was predeceased by first wife, Karen (Braucht) Nilsson in 1991.

Donations are requested in his name to Stanford School of Engineering.