Remembering Ricardo Uribe, Founder of ECE's Advanced Digital Projects Laboratory
Ricardo Uribe, an inspiring and unconventional teacher with an intriguing life story, died May 14, 2019, at the age of 83. In his long career as a lecturer in ECE, Uribe won the high admiration of generations of students.
Uribe joined the ECE faculty in 1974 as a research member of ECE Professor Heinz von Foerster’s Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL). Later he concentrated on teaching laboratory-based courses and founded the Advanced Digital Systems Laboratory (ADSL), which continues to this day as the Advanced Digital Projects Laboratory. Despite the official name change, the lab still goes by the nickname “ADSL.”
In ADSL—as well as in other courses and as advisor to many graduate students—Uribe encouraged students to think for themselves and to exercise their creativity and ingenuity. In an interview in 2004 he put it this way: “My strategy is to introduce perturbations that upset what students may have taken for granted. I want to wake them up!”
“He was a fantastic inspiration to so many students,” said ECE Teaching Professor Lippold Haken, who took charge of ADSL in 2005. Haken has continued the open format and community atmosphere of ADSL, as well as the lab’s long tradition—established under Uribe—of ADSL Open House, in which students demonstrate their projects at the end of every semester. “We owe him great thanks for starting ADSL all those years ago.”
Refuge in Illinois
Uribe was born August 7, 1935, in Santiago, Chile. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Chile and later joined the teaching and research staff at the school, focusing on digital and analog systems. It wasn’t until 1983 in the midst of his Illinois career that Uribe, a lifelong learner, earned his PhD in cybernetics from the University of Brunel in London, UK, under the guidance of cybernetics pioneer Gordon Pask.
In Chile in the early 1970s, Uribe worked on the visionary Project Cybersyn headed up by British cybernetician Stafford Beer with the support of Chile’s president Salvador Allende. Cybersyn marshalled cybernetic approaches to technology, organization, and decision-making toward reforming the Chilean economy in accord with the socialist program of President Allende. After General Augusto Pinochet seized power by military coup in 1973, Cybersyn was dismantled along with the rest of Allende’s base of support. Uribe and thousands of others faced diminished prospects at best, imprisonment or death at worst.
Fortunately for Uribe—and for ECE ILLINOIS—he was one of several Chilean intellectuals who had established enduring contacts with von Foerster. Von Foerster moved with dispatch to create a position for Uribe in the BCL and ensure the safe exodus of Uribe and his family.
Working in the BCL, Uribe used the University of Illinois’ legendary PLATO network to build a computer model of a cybernetic system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself in the manner of a living system. The model, which Uribe dubbed Autop, continued work he had begun in Chile with Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, the originators of the theory of autopoiesis, which seeks to describe and explain such systems.
From BCL to ADSL
Not long after von Foerster’s retirement and the closing of BCL in 1975, Uribe started ADSL, where similar themes were addressed in the same freethinking style but in an environment dedicated to students. Over the years ADSL students completed projects—including many award winners—in microprocessor networks, AI and robotics, music synthesis, speech/image/video processing, vehicle simulation, and more.
Students worked at their own pace in the lab, and Uribe used class meetings to encourage support across teams and spark wide-ranging discussions. ADSL alumnus John M. Hart (MSEE ’92), who now works in robotics and artificial intelligence in the Beckman Institute and Coordinated Science Laboratory, recalled Uribe demonstrating the blind spot in the visual field for students who didn’t know they had it. Needless to say, that was a lesson with applications beyond vision and optics.
“We have lost a great philosopher, passionate mentor and exceptional teacher,” said Hart.
One of the more famous ADSL alumni is Tesla Motors cofounder Martin Eberhard (BSCE ’82, MSEE ’84), who designed and built a four-wheel independent steering system for the ADSL robot. In the acknowledgments of his 1984 master’s thesis detailing the project, Eberhard, now the owner of battery company Tiveni, thanked Uribe and the ADSL students “for creating an environment where people can come together with projects of this caliber.”
“Ricardo totally changed my life,” remarked another well-known ADSL alumnus, hacker and inventor Mitch Altman (BSEE ’80, MSEE ’84), whose master’s project was a polyphonic music synthesizer built in ADSL. “Ricardo and ADSL were a huge inspiration for me in starting the hackerspace movement. Ricardo inspired me to live at a time in my life when I wasn't so sure it was worth it. I'm lucky to have had him in my life.”
ECE Assistant Director of Instructional Support Casey Smith (BSCE ’99, MSEE ’01) did his master’s work in ADSL under the guidance of Uribe and Haken. “Ricardo provided an environment for students to educate themselves,” said Smith, “and conversations in ADSL often provided perspective not only on engineering but a broader philosophy on life, curiosity about the world, and our place in it.”
That experience has stuck with Smith in his current position, which includes oversight of the freewheeling ECE Open Lab. “My time in ASDL was a cornerstone of my educational experience,” he said, “and I’ve tried to encourage that same spirit in the Open Lab.”
And like the Open Lab, ADSL appealed to students beyond ECE. Aero students Mariusz Zaczek (BS Aero 1999, MS Aero 2001) and Aaron Trask (BS Aero ’98, MS Aero ’00, PhD Aero ’02) took the course several times as undergrad and graduate students to pursue their love of robots and other things electronic. “Ricardo was always welcoming, always helpful and allowed us to have a great lab and resources,” recalled Zaczek.
A 1991 Technograph article describes an ADSL project entitled “Bach Box” which brought together students from music and computer science as well as ECE. Bach Box linked up the ADSL music synthesis and image processing systems to convert movement into sound, forming the basis of an interactive dance floor.
Leadership coach Michael Hamman (DMA ’97) used ADSL facilities to complete his doctoral work in computer music. In the acknowledgments of his dissertation, he thanked Uribe for providing in ADSL “an empowering environment for composers and engineers to collaborate and teach one another.”
Through the Eyes of a Child
Uribe’s impact in ECE was felt beyond ADSL. He directed or supported a variety of instructional laboratories, including one that became the gateway to the ECE curriculum.
In the early 1990s the department sought a way to introduce freshman ECE majors to the breadth of electrical and computer engineering, while motivating them in their prerequisite courses in math, physics, and engineering fundamentals. The result was ECE 110, Introduction to Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Uribe devised the central project of the lab-based course: an autonomous electric vehicle that could follow a reconfigurable course defined by white tape on a dark table. The project brought to bear theoretical material on circuits, sensors and electromagnetics, control, and digital systems, which was covered in lectures. At the end of the semester, students tested their vehicles competitively on a new course with obstacles.
Former ECE advisor and ECE 110 lecturer Marie-Christine Brunet, who is now Assistant Dean and Director of Academic Affairs in the Grainger College of Engineering, recalled Uribe encouraging ECE 110 students to “be children again—by which he meant to discover and think for themselves.”
“I cherish the memories of teaching with Ricardo,” added Brunet, “the man who stayed young at heart and always questioned the way he taught.”
Alumnus Jake Janovetz (BSCE ’96, MSEE ’99), who first met Uribe as a student in ECE 110, echoed Brunet’s take. “Ricardo always encouraged people to look at life with fascination and wonderment as through the eyes of a child,” said Janovetz. He continued working with Uribe as an ADSL student and—like many of Uribe’s former students—continued his friendship with Uribe after graduation.
“I know I'm happier, more balanced, and a better person for having adopted much of his philosophy as my own,” reflected Janovetz, now president of computer hardware company Opal Kelly.
In supporting ECE undergrad labs for 10 years, former ECE research programmer Andy Assad (MS CS ’93) recalls Uribe as his favorite ECE faculty member. “He brought a unique perspective to everything he looked at—oftentimes at odds with what a more mainstream view would see,” said Assad. “But, more often than not, time revealed that Ricardo was right, and not the conventional thinking.”
After retiring in 2004, Uribe was a regular visitor to Everitt Laboratory and later ECEB, where he kept in touch with friends and found support for his projects in departmental service units. He published revised editions and translations of his magnum opus, the Tractatus Paradoxico-Philosophicus (see here and here). And he continued to pursue creative hardware projects such as an elaborate, interactive network of oscillating lights and sensors that beguiled select audiences.
Uribe is survived by his wife Olga Uribe of Urbana, sons Andres of Chicago and Sebastian of El Dorado Hills, California, and two grandchildren. Olga has donated to ECE Uribe’s complete bound set of ADSL Publications for the benefit of current and future students.
“Ricardo is smiling,” replied Olga on learning that her gift to ECE ILLINOIS would reside in ADSL.