Nikil Jayant, adjunct professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UC Santa Barbara, has been around long enough to have developed a kind of “award philosophy.”
“I’ve learned,” he says, “never to worry that I have not won any particular award. On the other hand, if my peers recognize me with one, I am utterly delighted.”
He had the opportunity for delight recently when he was named one of 175 new fellows in the 2020 Class of Fellows at the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). An induction ceremony is currently scheduled to be held during the NAI Tenth Annual Meeting in Tampa, Florida, on June 8, 2021.
“The NAI is a US-centric academy, but it seems to include extraordinary contributors worldwide,” he said. “It includes Nobel Laureates and Nobel-caliber contributors from engineering, a field that does not have a Nobel Prize. Thus, I feel like I’m in a pond with much bigger fish! Humbled but happy.”
Jayant, who is both a fellow of the IEEE and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, says that becoming a fellow of the NAI “recognizes in particular that I am an academic with an impactful record of patents, in addition to the generally expected record of scholarly publications. In that way, it places me in prestigious company. In fact, UCSB already has a handful of NAI Fellows, and it is good to be able to join that group.”
While the NAI has not provided a specific citation for his induction into its ranks of fellow, “It is very likely,” Jayant suggests, “that I was recognized for the totality of my patents and their contributions to information signal processing and multimedia communication.”
Jayant has spent decades working in the areas of processing and compacting information signals so that they can more easily be shared over communication channels and personal storage media. He has 36 patents to his name, earned during his thirty years at Bell Labs and his fifteen years with Georgia Institute of Technology. Jayant’s inventions have enabled aspects of such momentous digital technologies as cellphone speech, MP3 audio, JPEG images, and HDTV video. His inventions enable those fields as part of international standards for information coding or in the form of company-proprietary technologies.
None of the life-style impacting advances mentioned above would be possible without the class of innovations that define Jayant’s field. A central example is the science and art of signal compression. When we capture speech or music from a high-quality microphone system or images or scenes from a high-quality camera system, an enormous sequence of bits (ones and zeroes in digital language) is generated, which is too large to be usefully shared. But today’s compression technology can strip away typically ninety percent or more of that information without causing a noticeable loss of signal fidelity, making it possible to send initially immense files around the world. Further, the degree of compaction can be tuned to network congestion (as in cellular telephony) or personal preference (as in digital photography).
“What’s the magic sauce here?” Jayant muses. “There are actually two ingredients. First: you remove predictable elements of the information, because the sounds from instruments that produce music or human voice do not change at an arbitrarily high speed, and can therefore be predicted from their recent history. Second: you remove nuances in the information that the ear, eye, and brain cannot appreciate anyway.
“In technical terms,” he continues, “we talk about these two pillars of compression: eliminating statistical redundancy and taking advantage of perceptual irrelevancy. This is the idea that, over the decades, has moved from proof of concept, to real-time computing in computer operating systems and special-purpose chips, and, finally, to international standardization. Without these advances in compression, having faster computers and faster networks and greater storage would simply not do the job. We need network speeds and capacities to increase, and we want the compressed output payloads from signal compressors to decrease, so that the intersections of these complementing technologies can create lifestyle-impacting advances.”
Jayant has been an adjunct professor at UCSB since the 2013-2014 academic year, a position he describes as being, “by definition, not so much a path for development, as it is a campus resource on an as-needed or mutually opportunistic basis.” In that role, he has taught a special graduate course on multimedia communications, collaborated with colleagues on developing research threads, and sat on multiple PhD proposal exams and defenses. He also has an ongoing research collaboration with the Media Arts and Technologies group in the CoE, on the topic of immersive multimedia.
In his later years at Georgia Tech, Jayant had begun to apply signal processing to medical and healthcare information, work that he continues to pursue at UCSB. And while the National Science Foundation does not generally accept research grant proposals by adjunct faculty, Jayant continues to submit proposals to other agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health. His grant application under the NIH Directors’ common program is currently pending.
Raised in Bangalore, India, Jayant earned his BSc in physics and mathematics from Mysore University and his BE and PhD degrees in electrical communications engineering from the Indian Institute of Science. He worked at Bell Laboratories from 1968-1998, eventually serving as the first Director of the Multimedia Communications Research Laboratory when Bell Labs became the research arm of Lucent Technologies. He served as a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar from 1998 to 2013. He is currently chaired professor emeritus at Georgia Tech, and adjunct professor at UCSB, beginning with the 2013-2014 academic year.