Jane J. Robinson

On Thursday (the 8th) there will be a memorial for my old friend Jane J. Robinson at SRI International in Menlo Park CA (where she worked for 14 years, until her retirement in 1987), organized by Ray Perrault (director of the AI Center at SRI, specializing in artificial intelligence and computational linguistics) and Barbara Grosz (Higgins Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard, specializing in natural language processing and artificial intelligence).


SRI logo

Jane died on April 22nd, just short of her 97th birthday, but the news barely percolated outside the community of computational linguists (where she was a giant presence). On August 25th, however, an excellent obituary appeared on the site of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL), of which Jane was president in 1982 — very much oriented towards computational linguistics, naturally enough, but worth quoting from here.


ACL logo

I’ll add some straightforward biographical information (gathered by Ray Perrault for me — many thanks to Ray) and personal reminiscences as the story unfolds.


Jane at SRI

The ACL obit was written by Barbara Grosz (Harvard); Eva Hajičová (Charles University in Prague, an expert on topic-focus articulation and corpus linguistics); and Aravind Joshi (Henry Salvatori Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science at Penn and co-director of the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science there; among other things, the creator of the tree-adjoining grammar framework for syntax). Jane’s close relationship to the linguists at Charles University came about through their mutual interests in the framework of dependency grammar; and for some time, Jane served as a major line of connection to linguistics (especially syntax) in the West for these linguists in Czechoslovakia.

I haven’t begun quoting from the ACL obit yet — just locating the characters in this story — and it should be clear that Jane was a figure in formal linguistics as well as computational linguistics, indeed from a time before the two communities largely went their separate ways; not only was she a regular participant in ACL meetings, she also attended most Linguistic Society of America (LSA) meetings.

Background about the ACL, from Wikipedia:

The Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL) is the international scientific and professional society for people working on problems involving natural language and computation. An annual meeting is held each summer in locations where significant computational linguistics research is carried out. It was founded in 1962, originally named the Association for Machine Translation and Computational Linguistics (AMTCL). It became the ACL in 1968.

The ACL has a European (EACL) and a North American (NAACL) chapter.

Back in the old days, the LSA and AMTCL both met in the summer, in connection with the Linguistic Institute, a summer school sponsored by the LSA, and it was at these meetings in 1964, at Indiana University, that I first met Jane and became friends with her. She was working as a computational linguist at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica CA (to which she’d been attracted by David (Dave) Hays), and I was working summers at the MITRE Corporation in Bedford MA, also as a computational linguist, under the direction of Donald (Don) Walker, who later (in 1973) brought Jane to SRI.

I next saw Jane in the summer of 1966, when those meetings were in California, in connection with the Linguistic Institute at UCLA. Jane was then working (since early in the year) in the Automata Theory and Computability Group at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights NY (under the direction of Warren Plath), and I was teaching linguistics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (to which I’d moved the year before). Jane was there with her sweetie Bill — William Cornyn, a distinguished linguist, specializing in Burmese and Russian studies, at Yale (his Wikipedia page is here; Jane, inexplicably, never had one). Jane’s habit of going to linguistics talks took her to New Haven, and there she connected with Bill and unexpectedly found love late in life (Jane was in her late 40s, and her husband had died in 1959; Bill was 60). They married the next year, but, alas, Bill died four years later.

Jane had the gift of friendship, and accumulated a raft of lifelong friends (not just me) in many places. When I was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, on the hills above Stanford, in 1981-82, she and I started having breakfast together once a week, a practice we picked up again when I started spending winter quarter at Stanford, in 1985. and continued when I moved to Stanford year-round, in 1998. My partner Jacques joined in these breakfasts until he went into a dementia care facility (at which point she began visiting him there regularly, taking him out on little excursions to familiar places that pleased him).

Along the way, the breakfast group expanded to include my daughter Elizabeth (and, eventually, her daughter Opal) and my Stanford colleague Elizabeth Traugott, also an oid friend of Jane’s.

Now to the ACL obituary, which I’ve edited down somewhat. It begins:

Jane Robinson, a pioneering computational linguist, made major contributions to machine translation, natural language, and speech systems research programs at the RAND Corporation, IBM, and in the AI Center at SRI International.

Jane became a computational linguist accidentally. She had a Ph.D. in history from UCLA [from 1946; she also had a UCLA B.A. and M.A.], but could not obtain a faculty position in that field because those were reserved for men. Instead, she took positions teaching English, first at UCLA and then at California State College, Los Angeles. While at LA State, where she was tasked with teaching engineers how to write, Jane noticed an announcement for a talk on Chomsky’s transformational grammar. She went to the talk [ah, those talks again] thinking this work on grammar might help her teach better. Although its subject matter did not match her expectations, the talk marked a turning point in her career.

In the late 1950’s, Jane became a consultant to the RAND Corporation group working on machine translation under Dave Hays. From the beginning, Jane was concerned with identifying connections between different traditions in formal grammars and their corresponding detailed linguistic realizations. Her 1965 International Conference on Computational Linguistics (COLING) paper, “Endocentric Constructions and the Cocke Parsing Logic”, is a beautiful example of connecting specific linguistic phenomena to parsing strategies in a way that preserves the nature of the linguistic phenomena, endocentric constructions. While at RAND, Jane became colleague and friend to many in the machine translation and emerging computational linguistics world, including Susumo Kuno, Martin Kay, Joyce Friedman, and Karen Sparck Jones.

And from RAND to IBM Yorktown Heights and then SRI.

Now, basic biography. Jane was born Jane Johnson in a town outside of Dallas-Fort Worth. Her mother took her to Los Angeles in the 1920s, and she lived there until her move to New York. She married Edward Charles Robinson in 1938, just after Jane got her BA from UCLA. They had four children: in order, Anne; Frank (who died earlier this year); Alice; and Mary. Surviving her are her three daughters and two grandsons, the children of Alice Robinson and Ross Molari.

Note that Jane went though graduate school and 13 years as a lecturer in English at UCLA with an increasing brood of children. When her husband died, she was left with four children, ranging in age from 7 to 18, and she took on the teaching position at Cal State LA (1960-66) and the work at RAND to support the family. Jane clearly had grit.

Jane frequently had guests for dinner and arranged for picnics at Foothills Park in Palo Alto; at SRI, she used these social occasions to knit the AIC staff together. And she was a mentor and model for many young colleagues.

Jane was enormously inquisitive intellectually: read widely, went to talks on all manner of subjects, and (after she retired) took to taking courses in Stanford’s Continuing Education program on a series of surprising subjects — heavy math and cosmology, among them. She once told a friend that she might well have gone into astronomy.

She wrote poetry throughout her life, participating in poetry groups and taking Stanford poetry classes, and even wrote a poem for her SIL colleagues on the occasion of her 87th birthday, “Ages”, which I’ll append to this posting.

And she traveled for pleasure and walked, hiked, and went backpacking (regularly in Yosemite, into her late 70s), almost always with friends — usually with a female friend as a companion. A trip to Iceland with my Ohio State linguistics colleague Ilse Lehiste, hiking in the Himalayas, hiking or backpacking with Barbara Grosz, Rita Hays (who she became friends with when Rita was still married to Dave Hays, who appeared earlier in this story), and the computer scientist and computational linguist Joyce Friedman (who was part of the MITRE team back in the 60s and then went on to Stanford, to Michigan, and to Boston University).

Friends spoke warmly about her openness and generosity of spirit, and also her ability to be “tough with grace” (Jerry Hobbs at SRI). She was a firm critic, but fair.



Looking backwards, I can see
twenty-one was the age for me.

I could cast my vote, I could buy my drink,
I could say whatever I chanced to think.
(They called me the neighborhood parlor pink.)

Problems were simply for solving
worth the candle the flame.
Around me the world was revolving
and all its tigers were tame.

So I thought to myself, “What a game!”

But forty-one brings a sense of doom.
Sure, I can vote. God help me, for whom?

I can think and drink, but it’s risky to utter
words that might cost me my bread and butter.
(Even my brain is beginning to stutter.)

Problems resist resolving,
candles melt in flame,
the world I knew is dissolving,
and I find that tigers can maim.

At forty-one it’s not the same damn game!


At eighty-five I’ve entered, I’m told,
my Golden Age. That translates to “old”.
But fears for my future no longer daunt me;
guilt-bearing ghosts have ceased to haunt me.
(And those whom I love, love me too and want me.)

Insoluble problems? Outlast them.
Lacking candles, wait for the dawn.
Tigers? Walk carefully past them.
Don’t stir them up; just move on

in this game never lost, never won.

Thu, Jun 12, 2003 JRobinson

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