AI Expert Jeff Rickel: 1963-2003

July 8, 2003

USC computer scientist Jeff Rickel, a "rising star" in the field of artificial intelligence, died Sunday, July 6, of complications of cancer. He was 40 years old.

"Jeff's research on interactive virtual humans was highly influential, and earned recognition and respect around the world," said W. Lewis Johnson, director of the USC Center for Advanced Research in Technology for Education at the USC Information Sciences Institute.

"His work combined techniques from artificial intelligence, computer graphics, and computational linguistics, to create interactive animated characters, or virtual humans, that are among the most advanced in the world today," Johnson added.

"Jeff was a rising star," said Norman Badler, director of the Center for Human Modeling and Simulation at the University of Pennsylvania. "He was one of the leaders in a community of researchers connecting AI techniques to computer graphics human models-so-called 'embodied agents.' His work was seminal and he will be sorely missed."

Rickel was a project leader in the Intelligent Systems division of ISI and a research assistant professor at the USC School of Engineering department of computer science. He specialized in the design of robotic "intelligent agents" designed to serve as instructors for humans.

Perhaps his most striking and best-known work was his contribution to the "Mission Rehearsal Exercise" created by the USC Institute for Creative Technologies.

In this project, artificial intelligence software actors Rickel created portray villagers and military personnel in a war- torn Bosnian village and interact with a human trainee in real time, in a virtual environment.

Articles about this project appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times.

Elisabeth Andre, a project leader at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, said Rickel's work on the Mission Rehearsal Exercise "creating agents that can take on different roles is a major accomplishment which has been influential for later work on interactive storytelling."

Other Rickel projects included a web based "Virtual Factory" teaching system for training, and an electronic tutoring system he was developing for the Mitsubishi Corporation.

"Jeff Rickel's work was important because he was able to synthesize insights from a variety of fields and integrate them into a vision of the future," said Justine Cassell, director of the Gesture and Narrative Language Research Group at MIT's Media Laboratory.

"Jeff's work had exceptional integrity: if he said or wrote something, then one knew that he had read all of the other research about the topic in the field, researched his own contribution thoroughly, tested it extensively, and written it with clarity."

"But," said Cassell, "there was something else about Jeff that was exceptional: he made you want to be in the same field with him. He had such generosity of spirit, such genuine interest in seeing the field move forward, and such a lack of pettiness or competition, that I always wanted to get his feedback on my work, wanted to present papers in his presence, looked forward to seeing him at conferences."

"Perhaps Jeff's greatest influence was on his colleagues and students." said Johnson. "He was a great collaborator, and carried out much of his best work as part of multidisciplinary teams. He cared greatly for his students, and inspired their love and admiration."

"Jeff Rickel was very kind to all the staff, not just the engineers and the bigwigs," said ISI receptionist Elizabeth Stergiou. "He always had a smile on his face and never ever forgot to say 'hello!'"

Jeffrey Walter Rickel was born March 11, 1963, in Madison, Wisconsin. His higher education was in Texas, with degrees in computer science including a BS from Texas A&M, a MS from the University of Texas, Dallas; and a Ph.D from the University of Texas, Austin in 1995.

He came to USC's Information Sciences Institute in 1995, directly from Austin.

Rickel was a resident of Rancho Palos Verdes. He is survived by his wife, Lynn, and daughter Chelsea.

A memorial service took place Thursday July 10 at at the Neighborhood Church, United Church of Christ, in Palos Verdes Estates. Speakers recalled Rickel's enjoyment of life, in his love of travel and connoiseurship of single-malt scotches, and the skills shown in the training of his labrador retriever Cocoa, who won numerous obedience prizes.

The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to one of the following two charitable funds:

The March of Dimes (see link).

The Jeff Rickel Memorial Library Fund has been established by USC/ISI for the purchase of books on artificial intelligence in education. Donation checks should be payable to USC, and sent, along with a letter indicating that the donation is intended for the "Jeff Rickel Memorial Library Fund," to:

Kathy Kurinsky, USC/ ISI
4676 Admiralty Way
Marina del Rey, CA 90292 USA.