“A Really Special Gift”: a remembrance of Thomas Shi-Tao Huang SM ’60, ScD ’63

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December 11, 2020

From R to L: Margaret Huang and Thomas Shi-Tao Huang SM ’60, ScD ’63 stand in Killian Court. Photo courtesy of the Huang family.

Jane Halpern | Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Thomas Shi-Tao Huang SM ’60, ScD ’63, a former professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT, passed away on April 25, 2020, three months after the death of his beloved wife Margaret. A pioneer in image processing and compression, computer vision, pattern recognition, multimedia retrieval, and human-computer interaction, Huang’s breadth and depth of scholarship was informed by a wide-ranging appetite for music and art. While Huang’s early work focused on network theory, his interests gradually shifted to focus on the then-novel technology of digital image coding. After completing his PhD with a thesis entitled “Pictorial Noise”, Huang joined the Electrical Engineering faculty at MIT, where he continued working until 1973 before moving to Purdue University and eventually the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where he spent the remainder of his career. However, the family’s connections to their first academic home remained strong; three of the four Huang children attended MIT, all within Course 6.

“My earliest memories of him until I left home were him working at home from his desk [in Cambridge],” said Huang’s eldest daughter, Caroline Huang SM ’85, PHD ’91. “I didn’t realize until I was quite a bit older that most parents didn’t bring work home at night. I went to school and I had my homework, and he had his homework. I didn’t realize that all adults didn’t have that!” Huang’s “homework” eventually yielded an astonishing number of publications; over the course of his career, he co-authored 23 books and more than 1000 papers, eventually becoming one of the world’s most-cited computer scientists.

Thomas and Margaret Huang in 1959. Photo courtesy of the Huang family. 

The first graduate student from the National University of Taiwan to attend MIT, Huang emigrated to Cambridge in 1958 to work with Professor Ernst Guillemin ’24, a mathematician with whom he’d corresponded. Huang was followed shortly after by his fiancée, Margaret, who took a job in a nearby biology lab. The young couple married and settled in Cambridge, where their family began. “I remember that apartment and my father working all the time,” recalls Caroline, who later realized the significance of her father’s contributions to a whole host of fields, including signal processing, content-based multimedia retrieval, and facial recognition. “He never let on that he was working on these first algorithms,” said Caroline. “It’s amazing, now I have the background that I can appreciate it. He never said, ‘Oh, this is a breakthrough my lab had and they’re using it in fax machines.’ He was always very modest. He didn’t market himself.”

Instead, the family saw another side of Huang; the Renaissance man whose enthusiasm for art and culture never waned. The household was full of music; “My mother had a beautiful operatic singing voice and sang quite a repertoire of Schubert and Mozart,” says Caroline, remembering that her father “had a vast record (later CD) collection, and there was always classical music playing in the background, mostly Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Italian operas.” Visual art was also on the menu: “During my high school years, we did a huge amount of travel in Europe,” Caroline recalled. “My father took two sabbatical years, spending one in Zurich and one in Bonn. Every weekend, he would take us  on trips to German towns and the Swiss Alps. When we had longer school vacations, he took us on train trips around Europe; overnight trains to Italy; to Florence and the museums there; to the Louvre.” One of the Louvre’s most famous inhabitants ended up being the subject of Huang’s research on gender and emotion detection, when software based on his work was playfully applied to the Mona Lisa (discussion of the painting begins at minute 22:15): “It doesn’t surprise me that he took up this sort of well-known question of whether the Mona Lisa was secretly Leonardo and whether she was smiling or not; I’m sure he thought it was very amusing, but the interest in European art was something he’d had for a long time,” says Caroline.

Huang’s ability to make broad connections between the arts and sciences lead him to make startling and fruitful leaps of insight within his research, as when he saw that speech and visual processing used many of the same techniques. While his curiosity remained boundless, Huang’s approach to research and scientific thought remained loose and improvisational. “The formulation of a problem and the approaches to it are to a large extent by chance. There is really no fixed way,” he told Andrew Goldstein of the IEEE History Center in a 1997 interview. “In many cases the goal is clear, you want to compress images. But you get ideas for approaching it from all over: you read someone else's paper, or hear something at a conference.”

Huang’s curiosity and energy inspired his graduate students (who numbered more than 100) to pursue discovery in their own right; 11 of Huang’s Ph.D. students and three postdoctoral students have been elected as IEEE Fellows, and more than 30 of them have followed in his footsteps to become teachers. “[His students] felt he was a model for life as well as an engineering researcher. I assume that had to do with what we saw when we traveled: his enthusiasm, and his deep and energetic interest in things other than his work. And I look back and wonder how he had the energy for all that,” said Caroline. One clue may have lain in Huang’s playful attitude towards his research: “We are more application-driven now, even if our main interest is still in basic research,” he told the IEEE. “At that time I was more romantic—I did things just for fun and didn't worry too much about the application.”*

At MIT, Huang’s legacy of curiosity and open exploration continues in the form of a scholarship. Founded in 2012 by Caroline Huang and her husband Mike Phillips, the Huang Phillips Fellowship for first-year graduate students in EECS was created to support students who, as Thomas Huang once did, come to MIT to explore entirely new worlds.

*Thomas Huang, an oral history conducted in 1997 by Andrew Goldstein, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.