First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:Michael I. Jordan

IEEE Award Recipient Series: Q&As with Icons of Engineering and Technology: 2020 IEEE John von Neumann Medal Recipient

Full Name

Michael I Jordan

Birth Date

02 25 1956

Place of Birth

Aberdeen, MD

Where did you grow up

Louisiana and Kansas

Family Background: Parents and their education level & Siblings and their education/profession

Father was a chemical engineer, with a BS from Texas A&M and a MS from MIT. Mother was a housewife, with a BA from University of Houston.

Sister is a public-policy researcher at the University of Kentucky. Brother is an educator in Brooklyn.

What did you want to do when you grew up?

I had no idea. I just had a very large amount of curiosity and I keep nourishing it.

What was your upbringing like? Did you have a large family?

There were five of us. We lived in the south and the midwest, and life was slow-paced. I remember lots of reading and lots of running around outdoors.

Did you have any hobbies (eg. Some people talk about learning trade skills from a family member.)

Music was always a hobby, which continues to the present day.

Did you partake in after school activities? Did you play sports?

I enjoyed sports, including golf, basketball, football, and track. I was reasonably good, but not great, at all of them.

Did you have a part-time job (after school, summer)? What was your most surprising job assignment?

I worked for a couple of summers in a chemical factory. It wasn't for me, and in fact it wasn't for most of the workers there either.

Did you take vacations and/or go on day trips?Favorite holiday/family gathering?

My father was in a generation who worked extremely hard, and vacations were rare. They were focused on trips to see extended family. In the midwest those trips were long.

EDUCATION: Favorite subject in school (K-12, university). Why?

I enjoyed learning French, first in high school and then in college. Psychology was a subject that fascinated me.

Did you have a least favorite subject in school (K-12, university. Why?

No. I find value in most everything in school.

Why did you select the university (universities) you attended? What was your major and why did you select it?

I went to Louisiana State; it was the local university and I didn't think that I had many other options.

Employment and career: First job - Current position - Favorite job

I've only had two jobs: I was a professor at MIT for eleven years, and then I moved to Berkeley, where I've been a professor ever since.

Has your career turned out as you expected?

Life is a random walk, and I've accordingly ended up far from where I would have expected.

Has IEEE played a role in your career? How? What does IEEE mean to you?

Although my career has veered between science, engineering and mathematics, I've come to believe that what I'm most interested in for my own career is engineering. By "engineering" I mean something very grand and forward-looking, a discipline that encompasses data, computing, inference, economics, and humans, all at planetary scale. IEEE is certainly a home for this kind of thinking.

You have been awarded one of IEEE's highest-level awards. What does this award mean to you?

John von Neumann was someone who knew no disciplinary boundaries, and was a problem-solver. It means a great deal to me to be associated with such an individual.

What other associations have helped you in your career?

I'd like to call out the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS). Statistics become a home field for me in mid-career, and the IMS in particular has been a source of support.

Career Advice: What advice would you give to young professionals entering your field today?

I was once asked how a typical day is structured in my life, and I answered "I spend half of each day minimizing entropy and half of each day maximizing entropy". That's the best advice I can give.

Reflection: What would you have done differently or tell your younger self now?

I probably would have urged my younger self to hurry on towards the path that I eventually followed, but I suspect that my younger self wouldn't have listened to my older self.

Was there a project that you were so passionate about that you continued to pursue it even though there may have been doubts about its success?

I was one of the early developers of the concept of "variational inference", which essentially involves bringing the field of nonlinear functional analysis into contact with statistical inference, as an alternative to the use of Monte Carlo techniques. It's been viewed with skepticism by the statistical community, which is fine, but that hasn't deterred me, and I continue to chip away at it.

What career achievement are you most proud of?

Unquestionably the training of many dozens of PhD students, who are now leading researchers in their own right, at leading institutions around the world.

Personal Life: What do you do for fun? Hobbies?

My main hobby at present is playing the drums. I've played in a number of bands, including faculty bands named "The Positive Eigenvalues" and "Errors in Bars".

What personal achievement are you most proud of?

Arriving at 60 years old, and feeling that I'm still learning more every year than the year before.

Do you have a favorite food? Or a family recipe that may have been passed down?

See my earlier comment about entropy. I like to explore. I love the cuisines of Asia, Europe, and South America. I also was fortunate to grow up in Louisiana, which is, IMHO, the best home-grown cuisine in the US.

Do you have a favorite genre of music? or a favorite song? Or do you play an instrument?

I love many genres, from classical to Latin to hip-hop. I like playing funk music on the drums.

Do you have a prize possession? If so, please explain.


What are three things people may not know about you?

That I speak fluent Italian, French and Spanish.

Who was your mentor? (eg. family member or professor)

David Rumelhart, at UCSD in the early 1980s. An amazing person.

What is one thing you cannot live without in your work space?

A laptop and a pair of reading glasses.

Anything else you would like to share about yourself?