Bob Keller

Bob Keller

June 12, 1944 – Sept. 13, 2020

The Harvey Mudd College community mourns the loss of Robert (Bob) Keller, who died Sept. 13. Bob was an internationally recognized computer scientist with corporate and academic experience as a technical leader, researcher, educator and administrator.

Bob joined the College’s computer science faculty and became chair of the newly formed department in 1991, following Bill Purves and Mike Erlinger, who chaired the combined biology and CS departments prior to his arrival. The new CS department graduated its first CS majors in 1992. As a professor of computer science, Bob specialized in intelligent music software, programming languages, neural networks and genetic programming and is known for his work on formal models, verification, functional languages and distributed graph reduction architectures.

A talented jazz musician who played trumpet and piano, Bob organized student performances for many years as part of his Jazz Improvisation class. He developed a music notation software program—dubbed the Improvisation Advisor, or “Impro-Visor”—that helps jazz musicians learn how to improvise jazz music, allowing them to generate new improvisations based on previous works of many famous jazz artists. The free, open-source software was released in 2006, and Bob’s research teams continue to develop it. Impro-Visor has a growing user community of more than 7,500 around the world.

Bob Keller, left, with students testing ImproVisor

Bob with students in the CS lab.

In addition to jazz improvisation, Bob taught courses on artificial intelligence, neural networks, computability and logic, computational creativity, software development, parallel and real-time computing, and databases. He has been a mentor for decades of Harvey Mudd students, having served as an advisor for the Clinic Program as well as Computer Science Clinic director.

For many years, Bob coached students participating in the Association for Computing Machinery International Programming contest. He has the distinction of being the coach of the winning 1997 world finals team of Brian Carnes ’97, Brian Johnson ’98, Kevin Watkins ’98 and Dominic Mazzoni ’99. The HMC team advanced from the ACM regional competition phase with over 1,000 participating teams then went on to beat 49 other teams at the world competition. HMC is the only undergraduate institution—and the last U.S. institution—to have won the contest, joining a list that includes MIT, Caltech, Waterloo, Stanford and Harvard, among others. Harvey Mudd teams have continued to do well, placing first at the ACM regional competitions in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2009 and 2010 and competing at the World Finals.

Bob Keller holding trumpet in front of book case.

In addition to his work in academia, Bob held a position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for more than 10 years, conceiving and participating in developing a language for controlling unmanned space missions that could be used for both programming and model-checking, as well as contributing to other declarative language research efforts. He was also a member of the technical staff at the Aerospace Corporation and vice-president of research and development at Quintus Computer Systems, a commercial vendor of Prolog language development systems.

Bob earned a PhD in electrical engineering and computer sciences from University of California, Berkeley (1970), and a B.S. (1966) and M.S. (1968) in electrical engineering from Washington University, where he contributed to research on asynchronous modular systems. He held faculty positions at Princeton (assistant professor), the University of Utah (associate professor and professor) and University of California, Davis (professor and chair of computer science), as well as visiting positions at Stanford, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and, most recently, University of California, San Diego.

Bob is survived by his wife, Noel, sons, Franz and Patrick, sister, Irma Ward, brother, Dennis Keller, and several nieces and nephews. The family requests that contributions in Bob’s honor be made to the Jazz Education Network’s Scholarship Program  the American Brain Tumor Association, and the Sierra Club Foundation.

“Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin

Sung by Esther Hwang, accompanied by Ben Jones g, Rafer Dannenhauer t, Bob Keller p, Hufsa Ahmad b, Rob Carrington d. Harvey Mudd College jazz improvisation class.

“Benny’s Dream,” an original tune by Bob Keller