Blog: Nils Nilsson, artificial intelligence pioneer and former Stanford professor, dies – San Francisco Chronicle
Nils Nilsson, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, died last week at his Oregon home at the age of 86.
Nilsson was the emeritus Kumagai Professor of Engineering in the department of computer science at Stanford University. He was a leader in the field of robotics and helped transition the department from the School of Humanities and Sciences to the School of Engineering, according to the university.
“He was an absolute treasure of a man,” said Grace Abbott, his wife of 26 years. “Exceptional, very bright, very generous, very modest of himself, very calmly confident.”
Nilsson, who died on April 22, was regarded as a leader in artificial intelligence and wrote or co-wrote multiple books on the subject, according to Stanford. He was also on the editorial boards of Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research and the journal Artificial Intelligence and was an editor of the Journal of the Association for Computing Machinery.
He helped create the robot known as “Shakey,” which was profiled in publications including the New York Times and National Geographic. Nilsson helped design and the write the algorithms that allowed the robot to make decisions and navigate, and the “intellectual progeny” of those algorithms is still in use, the university said.
Nilsson was the recipient of several awards, including the Research Excellence Award from the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence and the Distinguished Service Award for lifetime achievement from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, an organization he once headed as president.
Outside of work, Nilsson was outdoorsy and adventurous, his daughter Kristen Nilsson Farley of Los Angeles said, and he enjoyed skiing, hiking, running and traveling.
“My dad and I were the closest when we were running together,” Farley said. “We did everything from short distances to marathons together.”
Nilsson ran his first marathon, the Los Angeles Marathon, when he turned 65.
Nilsson was born on Feb. 6, 1933, in Saginaw, Michigan to Walter and Pauline Nilsson. He was the oldest of five sons and lived in Michigan until he was 11, when his family moved to Southern California. He attended high school in Glendale and graduated as valedictorian.
Nilsson enrolled at Stanford, which had a program at the time that allowed him to skip his bachelor’s degree and immediately start work on his master’s, which he completed in 1956. He received his doctorate in electrical engineering in 1958 from Stanford and then served three years in the U.S. Air Force.
He joined the Stanford Research Institute after being discharged in 1961 and worked there for 23 years, including leading the institute from 1980 to 1984. Nilsson joined the Stanford faculty as the chair of the computer science department in 1985.
Daphne Koller, a former Stanford faculty member who is now an adjunct, met Nilsson when she was a doctoral student at Stanford in 1989. Koller, now the CEO of Insitro, said when she joined the Stanford faculty in 1995, Nilsson helped her adjust to her new position.
“Every time when I had any questions about how to navigate a complex advising situation or such, I always knew I could go to him and he would have sage advice and really useful insights,” she said.
Nilsson was married to Karen Braucht Nilsson until her death in 1991. Besides daughter Farley, the couple had a son, Lars Nilsson of Piedmont.
Nilsson later married Abbott, who had four sons from a previous marriage.
“It was very fun making a blended family because on our watch the rest of the kids acquired spouses, and grandchildren,” Abbot said.
Nilsson is survived by his wife, Grace Abbott; daughter; Kristen Nilsson Farley; son, Lars Nilsson; Abbott’s four sons and their spouses; and 12 grandchildren.