August 2008

Automation Founders Circle

EDITOR'S NOTE: ISA continues its tradition of honoring leaders throughout the automation industry by presenting the Automation Founders Circle awards. This year's recipients are Hans Baumann and Margaret Walker with the ISA Honorary Member award, the highest honor bestowed by the society; Tom Thomas with the Arnold O. Beckman Founder Award; Dr. Robert Moore with the Albert F. Sperry Founder Award; and F. Gregway Shinskey with ISA's 2008 Life Achievement Award. Wake Forest, N.C.-based freelance writer Bob Felton wrote all five of the profiles.

Merging AI with process control earns Robert Moore the Sperry Founders Award

"We wanted to make computers smart enough to be helpful." -Moore

During MIT's free-for-all hacker years, so well chronicled in the book by Steven Levy, when Marvin Minsky was shaping and revolutionizing the ambitions of artificial intelligence (AI), and Harvard undergraduate Richard Stallman was working in the AI laboratory and laying the groundwork for what eventually became the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation, Dr. Robert Moore was earning his Ph.D. and planning a revolution of his own-the marriage of artificial intelligence with process control.

After receiving his doctorate at MIT in 1971 and a dozen years spent fine-tuning and optimizing the systems of multiple vendors, Moore founded in 1983 a company called AI Systems, aiming to combine artificial intelligence technology with process control by applying the rules of experts in real time.  Often, if something flaky happened in a plant, operators could be overwhelmed by thousands of discrete pieces of data, confronting them with the problem of not merely creating a mental catalogue of the information, but processing it in an organized way according to the local system rules-and doing it quickly.

"We wanted to make computers smart enough to be helpful," Moore explained.

Soon afterward, Moore merged AI Systems into LISP Machines, Inc., heading-up a newly-created Process Systems Division.  The first product from the merged companies was Process Intelligent Control, or PICON, which was first installed in Exxon and Texaco refineries and was the first commercial real-time expert system used in industry.  It was object-oriented software that permitted the operator to vest his own know-how in the instruments, creating data interpretations and rules in plain language, eliminating the need to learn complex, counter-intuitive syntax and loop structures.  Additionally, the knowledge base supported local and global variables, and was portable to other, similarly empowered applications.

"For outstanding technical contributions and leadership in artificial intelligence and expert systems in process control systems," Moore is this year's winner of ISA's Albert F. Sperry Founder Award, which was created to recognize an outstanding technical, educational, or philosophical contribution to the science and technology of instrumentation, systems, and automation.

The award is named for Albert F. Sperry, who was internationally recognized for his contributions to the advancement and development of instrumentation as an innovator, business executive, and ISA leader. Sperry served as the first ISA president in 1946 and was elected an Honorary Member of ISA in 1956.

From theory to practice

The ideas were familiar ones to academics, but the distance between a good idea and a product can be Grand Canyon-sized, with the risk of a tumble accompanying every step.  "I would say that the general concepts had been in the academic field, and he turned them into products.  There's a lot to do to achieve that," said Russell Rhinehart, chair of the Chemical Engineering Department at Oklahoma State and himself a researcher in computer applications in process control.  Endorsing Moore's nomination, Rhinehart wrote, "Bob is an extraordinary visionary and leader, in both the technical and business aspects of contributing to automation. He brings ideas to fruition. … I would place very few people in the category of Ziegler, Nichols, Buckley, Summers, Shinskey, Cho, Weaver, Bajeck, and others. Moore definitely belongs."

Moore presented a paper describing the software at ISA's 1984 annual meeting in Houston, Expert Systems Applications in Industry, and subsequently received the R.N. Pond Award for best paper of the year.

AI again

Starting one AI-centric company was not enough as Moore decided to launch in 1986 Gensym Corporation. Assisted by quite a few of the original PICON development team, they soon developed a second-generation product used by companies throughout the world, including DuPont, Monsanto, Eli Lilly, and Lafarge, and instrument vendors such as ABB and Siemens, with installations numbering in the thousands. 

It takes more than just a good product to make a company successful, though.  Dr. Joseph Alford, an ISA Fellow and retired from Eli Lilly, recalls his dealings with Gensym: The "sincere offer by Dr. Moore and Gensym to provide input [to product development] was always cherished by our company, as customers value the opportunity to influence a vendor's product direction. During the 15 years or so in which I was involved with applying artificial intelligence technology, it was the unanimous opinion of myself, my colleagues, and my counterparts at many other companies that Gensym continued to sell the best real-time expert system technology in the world."

Moore ran the company until its IPO in 1996; stock offered at $10 par almost doubled to $19.25 in less than a month.

That marked the beginning of Moore's first retirement, which lasted only a few years.  He was appointed Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, and in 2001 was made a director of Matrikon, a $100-million per year developer of industrial intelligence products for continuous process enterprises.

He also began devoting time to Tech Coast Angels, a not-for-profit group of more than 300 experienced, successful businessmen who assist business start-ups with everything from funding to hands-on management.  The organization assists an average of 20 start-ups per year.  An Angels FAQ profiles the typical member: "Successful and semi-retired, which means they tell their friends they're retired, but they're really busy doing several projects; they're just not punching a clock or showing up in an office each day. Members may be sitting on several boards of directors, of startups and non-profits."

One of the ideas that made its way to TCA was organized as Vigilistics, a developer of Expert Systems software that aims to improve safety and productivity in the food industry.  That led, in turn, to Moore's agreeing to manage Vigilistics through its start-up.  He began his second (semi, presumably) retirement just this past April.