Inaugural Banerjee Lecture in High Performance Computing Delivers Upon its Namesake's Constant Quest for New Knowledge

4/25/2022 10:14:02 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Sanchita Banerjee Saxena stands at a podium - with her two sons standing behind her, as well as an American flag - speaking at the Inaugural Banerjee Lecture.
Sanchita Banerjee Saxena stands at the podium during the inaugural Utpal banerjee Distinguished Lecture in High Performance Computing, honoring her late father. Her sons, Rohil and Sanil stand behind her.

When Sanchita Banerjee Saxena followed Illinois Computer Science Department Head, Nancy M. Amato, to the podium on Thursday, April 15 at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications auditorium it marked the end of a nearly five-year process to honor Saxena’s father and Illinois CS alumnus Utpal Banerjee (MS '76, PhD '79) who died in 2017.

The inaugural Utpal Banerjee Distinguished Lecture in High Performance Computing was initially scheduled to occur nearly two years ago to the day – prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the auditorium filled to capacity, Saxena relished the moment to introduce her father to students who didn’t know him and years-long colleagues and friends who knew him quite well. One of those friends and colleagues – Illinois CS professor emeritus and Intel Fellow David J. Kuck – then delivered the lecture to a roomful of engaged and eager minds.

This scene produced the exact sense Saxena envisioned when she first discussed the idea of this annual lecture with department leadership.

“It was so great to be here, seemingly all of a sudden considering it has been two years in waiting and even longer in planning,” said Saxena, executive director of the Institute for South Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “To be here with my two children, Rohil and Sanil – Utpal’s grandchildren – as well as the rest of my family, made for a wonderful moment. I think we, like so many others, have missed these sorts of interactions and had become a bit desperate for it.

“There was an undeniable energy in the room seeing everyone there. I just loved that. My father would’ve loved that. It was great.”

The lecture itself honored Banerjee’s long-lasting success that included a nearly 20-year career at Intel in the Software Solutions Group, where he developed techniques to enhance the performance of multi-core processors.

When he came to Illinois CS for his PhD, Banerjee expanded upon a strategy for automatically analyzing a loop and determining whether it could be executed in parallel. The success of this notion – brought forth throughout the academic world with the help of Kuck, his PhD advisor – was so immense it remains widely known as “Banerjee’s test.”

Current Illinois CS Professor Lawrence Rauchwerger became connected to Kuck through his work as a student with the Center for Supercomputing Research and Development (CSRD) - which Kuck served with as director. Also, Rauchwerger’s PhD advisor was current Illinois CS professor emeritus, David Padua – who was a student of Kuck’s and an academic sibling of Utpal Banerjee.

Rachwerger introduced Kuck by tying his work to the importance of Banerjee’s.

“It’s only natural, given we are here at the University of Illinois, that we can use this lecture to explain the profound impact David Kuck and Utpal Banerjee had on computing,” Rauchwerger said. “When they worked together to solve a problem with loops to make them quicker, this analysis became known as ‘Banerjee’s test’ and was widely used in the development of compilers.

“It’s still utilized today, because, in computing we know, fast is important.”

Rauchwerger also said that Bajerjee’s work was “profound yet understated, just like the man.”

This description coincided well with other complimentary words.

Padua said that the lecturer is “one of the most powerful voices of his generation – the generation that created the discipline.”

It quickly became clear just how much of an impact Banerjee and Kuck had on their corner of computing.

“One of the things that this lecture reminded me of, and made me more mindful of, was about my relationship with students,” Kuck said. “Of course, some students go in different directions after they graduate, and it’s easy to lose touch. But some students become lifelong friends and colleagues.

“Utpal was certainly a lifelong friend and colleague of mine. He also made an amazing contribution to the study of theoretical computer science here at Illinois. Since his contribution is still widely used, it’s almost like he is still with us all the time.”

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Illinois CS professor emeritus David J. Kuck (center) provided the inaugural Banerjee Lecture. Here he is pictured with Banerjee Saxena (to Kuck's left), along with her family and Illinois CS Department Head Nancy M. Amato (far left), Illinois CS professor Lawrence Rauchwerger (third from right) and Illinois CS professor emeritus David Padua (far right).

In listening to Kuck deliver his speech – entitled “Architectural and SW Complexity as Optimization Tool Drivers” – Saxena couldn’t help but feel inspired. She also allowed herself the time to think of what her father’s reaction would’ve been to hear his mentor deliver this address.

“When we talk about my dad being humble, it wasn’t just a funny personality trait. It was genuine. He used to say, ‘I actually don’t know anything. I have so much to learn.’ That wasn’t just self-deprecating, it was what he believed – and that stemmed from having such a respect for the sheer amount of knowledge in the world,” Saxena said.

Banerjee’s humble nature and clear impact in computing, served as a perfect fit for this lecture, according to Amato.

“When Utpal died in 2017, his family explained that they were only beginning to understand what kind of impact this Illinois CS alum had on high performance computing,” Amato said. “As a result, we have established this lecture series in his name to focus on high performance computing.

“The annual lecture will remind people of the importance of high performance computing, and it will continue the tradition and amazing track record this department has in the field by inviting others to explain their work.”

The fact that this lecture will now exist year after year holds a special meaning to Saxena.

“One of the things that stood out to me, in speaking with Nancy, is the permanence of this lecture,” Saxena said. “We’ve spoken of ideas about how it will continue, and maybe adding new formats or types of speakers from academia. There are a lot of different directions this could take, but the important thing is that it has his name for as long as it exists.

“At the end of the day, my father wanted to support new ideas through exciting research collaborations, and that’s what this lecture represents.”