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Inspirational innovators: Stephen Yau delivers deep computing expertise

Fulton Schools faculty provides the opportunity to study with the pioneers of computer science

by | May 31, 2024 | Faculty, Features

Stephen Yau, a professor in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, is a globally recognized computer scientist whose pivotal contributions to engineering have paved the way for many modern advancements. Photographer: Robert Mayfield/ASU

Meet the Inspirational Innovators: This is the first in a series of profiles designed to spotlight faculty members in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence who offer students the unique opportunity to learn and collaborate with luminary figures in computer science.

Career highlights:

  • Author of more than 270 research papers
  • Mentor to approximately 140 doctoral students and 115 master’s degree students
  • Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE
  • Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Winner of the first-ever Richard E. Merwin Award from the IEEE Computer Society in 1981 for distinguished service to the computer science profession
  • Winner of the Tsutomu Kanai Award from the IEEE Computer Society in 2002 for outstanding contributions to distributed computing software engineering
  • Winner of the Distinguished Service Award from the Chinese Institute of Engineers in 2019 for dedication and leadership in software engineering
  • Past president of the IEEE Computer Society and award-winning editor of Computer magazine
  • Organizer and chair of dozens of international technical conferences

Summer. San Francisco. 1989.

It was a cool and breezy August day. America was at the movies watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. “Forever Your Girl” by Paula Abdul played endlessly on the radio.

Stephen Yau paced across the floor of the Moscone Center.

The White House was on the phone again.

The acclaimed engineer had spent months organizing the 11th World Computer Congress sponsored by the International Federation for Information Processing. An impressive array of computer scientists and engineers from all over the world converged in the city by the bay to discuss how to develop better tools for technology professionals. With presentations on supercomputing, factory automation and artificial intelligence, Yau’s program would be seen as cutting-edge even today.

Cognizant of the growing and influential role of the tech sector in all facets of American life, President George H.W. Bush was eager to address the global scientists. But his aids struggled to find a window in his schedule. They called each day to provide Yau with an update on the president’s availability.

In the end, Bush was a no-show. But Yau took it in stride. He’d already had the pleasure of welcoming then-Vice President Gerald Ford to the stage of the National Computer Conference in 1974 and spent the late 1970’s advising the Carter administration on the role that computers could play in improving government services.

Stephen Yau shaking hands with Gerald Ford

Yau welcomes then-Vice President, Gerald Ford, to the stage at the National Computer Conference in 1974. The conference is one of the many events Yau has organized over the years. Photo courtesy of Stephen Yau

Yau pulled off the conference without a hitch.

“Of course, the president is always busy,” he recalls with a laugh.

In fact, over his long and storied career, it’s Yau himself who has been quite busy.

Yau is a professor of computer science and past program chair in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. He provides students with the special opportunity to learn from inspiring figures in engineering.

Born in Wuxi, Jiangsu, China in 1935, Yau was forced to flee the turbulence of the Chinese Civil War, moving to Taiwan shortly after finishing high school. There, he discovered his passion for electrical engineering, receiving his bachelor’s degree from the National Taiwan University, Taipei in 1958. After earning a doctoral degree from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 1961, Yau was recruited by Northwestern University to develop its fledgling computer science department.

“There was no computer science back then,” he says. “We had to create it.”

Yau notes that a handful of schools had computer science programs at that time, but all were small and in their infancy. He developed a curriculum that was a fusion of electrical engineering, industrial design and applied mathematics. One of the early challenges in starting the program was competing with other engineering disciplines to hire faculty members. He served as program chair for 27 years.

Rich research plays pivotal part in the PC revolution

A seminal and pioneering figure in distributed and parallel computing, Yau also began his highly influential research.

“The problem we were trying to solve in the early days was that a computer was a very complicated piece of equipment. But it wasn’t enough to satisfy the user,” Yau says. “So, we needed to develop programming solutions to make computers useful. This is where distributed computing became important.”

Advances in distributed computing, in which multiple devices connected by a network work together to solve a problem, and parallel computing, where multiple processors installed in the same computer process tasks at the same time, are largely what led to the internet era and massive advances in telecommunications.

Today, Amazon receives more than 66,000 orders per hour and ships 1.6 million packages per day. The work of serving up web pages and processing these transactions must be managed by vast networks of computers. A typical Amazon data center contains between 50,000 to 80,000 servers that are working together to process transactions. Without distributing computing, that would all be impossible.

In fact, without the kinds of breakthroughs in parallel computing spearheaded by researchers like Yau, the personal computer as we know it today might never have developed. The first small desktop computers simply weren’t that powerful.

“Back in the 60’s and 70’s computers really weren’t that helpful to most people,” Yau says. “Computers needed to be able to do more complex tasks, and for that to happen we had to create the systems needed to help them to be able to simultaneously and reliably work on different pieces of a problem.”

Necessary advancements required a movement away from where things began — with serial computing, in which processors followed a set of instructions, moving on to the next task only after the prior one was complete, much like a single cashier in a grocery store would assist one customer at a time.

By 1963, almost a decade before computer scientists would broadly tackle the issues of distributed and parallel computing using object-oriented programming, Yau was already hard at work on the required innovations. He was awarded the prestigious Louis E. Levy Medal from the Franklin Institute for his paper, “A Generalization of the Cut-Set,” where he made essential advances in graph theory.

Yau’s properties of cut-sets were fundamental in optimizing communication, enhancing reliability and improving the overall efficiency of parallel and distributed computing systems. He helped to innovate systems that were both robust and efficient, handling communication overhead effectively and ensuring scalability.

In essence, Yau built the foundation for the grocery store to be able to open another checkout line and help multiple customers at the same time. Without this evolution, many popular activities, like playing modern video games or creating computer animation could not happen because they are especially reliant on parallel computing to render graphics in real time.

In the 1970’s and 80’s, Yau continued his groundbreaking research, turning his attention to object-oriented programming, authoring dozens of papers for peer-reviewed journals, traveling the globe giving presentations and mentoring doctoral students.

An illustration that was part of Yau’s 1983 paper, “Distributed Software System Design Using Modified Petri Nets.”

An illustration that was part of Yau’s 1983 paper, “Distributed Software System Design Using Modified Petri Nets.” This work was considered a particularly important contribution to the development of complex object-oriented distributed software. Illustration courtesy of IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering

Object-oriented programming represented a new way of looking at computer science. In the real world, we interact with many physical objects, but we don’t always know what goes into making them. A person, for example, might want to use a light bulb but not manufacture a light bulb. In this new world, software engineers could create code objects, or programming blocks, and combine them into larger programs, much like someone might buy many bulbs to light a home. This enabled the development of more complicated systems because engineers could assemble programs using each other’s code.

Yau’s work during this time focused on creating practical, easy-to-use methods of integrating software components from various sources to make programs for distributed systems reliable and reusable. He also steered the conversation on these issues, serving as president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE, Computer Society from 1974 to 1975. He was the editor-in-chief of Computer, the flagship publication of the IEEE Computer Society, from 1981 to 1984.

Fulton Schools faculty inspire educational excellence

Yau was recruited by ASU in 1994 and tasked with fleshing out its computer science offerings. His first order of business was to ensure that students had access to the best faculty. He hired Sethuraman Panchanathan to join the team. Panchanathan, who went on to become the founding chair of the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence as it was spun into its own school, currently serves as director of the National Science Foundation.

“He was an inspiration through his strong commitment to computer science and engineering as well as to ASU and the professional community,” Panchanathan says of Yau. “He worked harder than anyone else in the department. He was very straightforward in his approach as a leader. He hired amazing faculty and challenged them to excel in their career.”

Since arriving at ASU, Yau has been elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and named as a Life Fellow of the IEEE.

Gail-Joon Ahn with students

Gail-Joon Ahn, a professor of computer science and engineering in the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence, at work in his lab with then-doctoral student, Mike Mabey, and Yau. Since 2017, Ahn has expanded on Yau’s cybersecurity efforts. Photo courtesy of Gail-Joon Ahn

In 2006, concerned about the vulnerability of technical infrastructure and the growing need for cybersecurity solutions, Yau founded the Information Assurance Center, which was then certified as a Center of Academic Excellence by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. Subsequently merged into the Global Security Initiative, founded in 2017 by Professor Gail-Joon Ahn, and later folded into today’s Center for Cybersecurity and Trusted Foundations, Yau’s center formed the basis of ASU’s highly ranked cybersecurity program.

Although he is renowned for his research, Yau is most proud of his legacy as an educator. He estimates that he has mentored approximately 140 doctoral students during his career and sees these efforts as a key component of ensuring American excellence in computer science.

“Students from all over the world seek their doctoral degrees from strong programs like the ones here at ASU,” he says. “These students are the driving force in research and ensure that difficult, innovative work gets done.”

Yau’s presence at ASU is a meaningful part of what the Fulton Schools has to offer.

“Having Stephen Yau on our faulty team signals something important to our students and to the world,” says Ross Maciejewski, director of the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence. “Our program moves at a fast pace, but our expertise runs deep. Those who study with us tap into a curriculum of technological learning developed by the innovators of that technology.”

Yau remains an inspirational figure for his successful students. Sheikh Iqbal Ahamed who received his doctoral degree from ASU in 2003 under Yau’s supervision, has since moved on to serve as the founding chair of the computer science department at Marquette University and is, himself, a senior member of the IEEE and the IEEE Computer Society.

“Stephen Yau taught me how look for new research issues, be goal-oriented and to thrive independently,” says Ahamed. “This experience helped me to secure more than fifteen grants from National Institutes of Health.”

Yau poses with doctoral students in 2007

Yau poses with doctoral students in 2007. Over the years, he has mentored approximately 140 students who have gone on to top positions in industry and academia. Photographer: Robert Mayfield/ASU

Today, Yau continues to write and conduct research, pursuing advancements in blockchain. He’s excited about future developments in quantum computing and believes that the next generation of computer scientists will solve its lingering challenges.

Panchanathan says Yau has built a legacy that will stand the test of time.

“Yau’s contributions to the computing community are indeed recognized globally,” he says. “The entire computer science community owes a debt of gratitude for all his efforts in mentoring and motivating numerous students during his stellar career.

While contemplating his next act, Yau laughs and says, “People tell me I need to update my resume. But when will I find the time?”

About The Author

Kelly deVos

Kelly deVos is the communications specialist for the School of Computing and Augmented Intelligence. She and holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her work has been featured in the New York Times as well as on Vulture, Salon and Bustle. She is a past nominee for the Georgia Peach, Gateway and TASHYA book awards.

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