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Obituary: Jonathan Mills

Jonathan Mills grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he would often spend time collecting butterflies with his mother.

His academic career started at the Western Michigan University where he studied Latin. During his undergraduate career, he took an Army ROTC scholarship to assist with the cost of his studies. When he graduated, the United States was pulling troops out of Vietnam so he was assigned to Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah.

In the army, Jonathan was assigned to a unit that was studying captured Soviet chemical equipment. His boss encouraged him to pursue computing rather than a career in the military. He was provided access to an IBM360 and was taught how to program. To Jonathan it was like “offering candy to a baby”. This catalyst led him to explore computer science.

Jonathan left the military and began working at Argonne National Laboratory where he worked on developing special computing hardware to process programs written in Prolog, a language used in artificial intelligence and computational linguistics. His exceptional work on this project led to Motorola funding his PhD studies at Arizona State University. He based his doctoral work on the development of special purpose digital hardware for processing Prolog programs.

In 1988, Jonathan’s career at Indiana University began when he was hired by the Computer Science Department. He continued his work on special purpose digital hardware to process Prolog until one day when he was helping a graduate student with a program to solve a problem in Lukasiewicz Logic, a type of non-classical multiple-valued logic. He noticed that while Boolean logic was well suited to digital computers, the potential continuous nature of multiple-valued logic was a better fit for analog computers. Additionally, he noticed that most systems in nature (such as people) demonstrate these types of continuous properties. This insight propelled him to a career devoted to creating unconventional computing systems to model natural systems.

In the early 1990s, Jonathan was influenced by Lee Rubel from the University of Illinois. Lee Rubel had conceived of a theoretical machine called the Extended Analog Computer, but he did not know how to build it. His thoughts on analog computation propelled Jonathan to spend his career focusing in this area. Rubel wrote, “The future of analog computing is unlimited. As a visionary, I see it eventually displacing digital computing, especially, in the beginning, in partial differential equations and as a model in neurobiology. It will take some decades for this to be done. In the meantime, it is a very rich and challenging field of investigation, although (or maybe because) it is not in the current fashion.”

Over the years, Jonathan created many analog computational systems to model the behavior of the Extended Analog Computer. By the early 2000s, he was considered a world leader in unconventional computing. In 2007, he accepted a position at the University of West England as the Leverhulme Trust Professor where he was able to influence new researchers as they were beginning their careers in unconventional computing. Andy Adamatzky, Professor in Unconventional Computing at UWE, wrote “Jonathan contributed substantially towards introducing and adopting innovative concepts and technology in the United Kingdom, and richly enhance community of the research studying unconventional computing.”

Jonathan’s true personality shined through in his interactions with students. Jeff Jones, a graduate student at UWE, commented “I had the pleasure of meeting him in 2007 as a very nervous student and his warmth, genuine interest, curiosity, and warm friendly character put me at ease.” This description of his character is emblematic of many interactions that Jonathan had with students over the years.

On returning from England, Jonathan was excited to apply the principles of the extended analog computer to the problem of protein folding. Dennis Shasha, Professor of Computer Science at NYU, invited Jonathan to spend the summer of 2009 working at the Courant Institute. Dennis writes “We sought out Jonathan, because his work epitomized a physics-based rethinking of computation.”

In 2010, Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere wrote the book Natural Computing: DNA, Quantum Bits, and the future of Smart Machines which is about computer scientists who use natural systems to compute, includes a chapter on Jonathan. He considered this to be recognition of a career spent working in this area.

The work that Jonathan pioneered has been foundational for several patents. One of the patents was co-developed with Russ Eberhart, inventor of particle swarm optimization. Russ Eberhart wrote “I believe Jonathan was a genius and a visionary in the computing field. His multifaceted intelligence never ceased to amaze me.”

Later in his career, Jonathan became interested in composing and performing music. Jonathan was mentored by Tj Jones, IU staff member and expert bass player. Tj recounted his experiences with Jonathan as a musician as follows: “the first thing that impressed me was his enthusiasm and joy in discovering his innate ability to hear and create music, some of which turned out to be unbelievably sophisticated.”

In January of 2016, Jonathan passed away after a long battle with cancer. His absence will be felt at Indiana University and throughout the unconventional computing community. However, his impact will persist through the people that he has influenced over the years.

Bryce Himebaugh
Indiana University

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