Alum Erol Gelenbe (’68, '70) decreed a Commander of the National Order of Merit of France by President Emmanuel Macron

The honor is just the latest in a long chain that also includes a knighthood in France’s Legion of Honor

Erol Gelenbe speaking at podium

Erol Gelenbe speaks as French Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation Frédérique Vidal looks on.

Although Erol Gelenbe was born in Istanbul, Turkey, his CV includes an array of academic appointments and awards that span the globe – from the Fulbright Fellowship that allowed him to embark on his graduate studies in the United States to his latest honor, conferred on July 3, when French Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation Frédérique Vidal conferred him the insignia of Commandeur de l'Ordre National du Mérite (Commander of the National Order of Merit of France) , vaunting his exceptional track record as a researcher, educator, and technology innovator who has contributed to a wide range of French and international technology companies.

The elegant blue-enameled star that was bestowed on Gelenbe, one of only two academics recognized with that honor in 2019, is not the first such decoration that he holds: a red-beribboned star festooned with an oak and laurel wreath was presented to him in 2014, when he was decreed a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor) by then French President Francois Hollande.

France is far from the only entity to recognize the reach and brilliance of Gelenbe’s research, which in recent years has focused on the interaction of energy with computation; he recently published a series of papers that seek to advance scientific understanding of how much energy is needed to achieve a certain level of performance by computers, and how a finite amount of energy should be shared between many computers so as to minimize the time it takes them, on average, to run a certain workload of jobs and networking tasks. Additionally, he has been working to create "self-aware" networks that sense that a malicious attack may have started somewhere in the network itself and which dynamically re-route the flows of data that they carry so as to avoid and neutralize the effect of the attacks.

Among his other laurels have been the Science Award of the Parlar Foundation, the Prix France-Telecom from the French Academy of Science (as the first computer scientist to garner the prize), the Association for Computer Machinery’s (ACM) special interest group in performance evaluation’s SIGMETRICS Achievement Award, the Mustafa Prize in Information and Communication Science and Technologies, the Oliver Lodge Medal from London’s Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), the Dennis Gabor Prize from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Meritorious Service Award and Computer Society Meritorious Service Award, and fellowships in the IEEE, ACM, and IET. Additionally, he is a Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of Italy and a Commander of Merit of the Republic of Italy, as well as a member of such groups as the Royal Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters of Belgium; Polish Academy of Sciences; Hungarian Academy of Sciences; Turkish Academy of Sciences; National Academy of Technologies of France; and Academia Europaea.

That list represents but a small sample from Gelenbe’s CV and explains the incredible real-world impact of his pioneering work. Erol designed and patented the world’s first packet-voice telephone switch some 20 years before Skype came into existence and designed and built the first random access Local Area Network that uses fiber optics connections some years before Ethernet became a de-facto standard. His development of mathematical models known as G(elenbe)-networks for the analysis and optimization of communication networks  with widespread applications like traffic re-routing and network optimization, the invention of the Random Neural Network with applications in deep learning, adaptive network routing and anomaly detection both in networks and brain scans are some of his fundamental contributions.

For several years, Gelenbe has been active with SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies), a group that provides scientific advice to the political leadership of the European Union. “I am currently working on helping Europe's leaders understand how we can evaluate the ‘truthfulness’ of Artificial Intelligence (AI), since AI programs typically reflect the self-interest of the companies that provide recommendations, including web searches, based on the technology,” he explains. “Much of AI or Machine Learning is itself the result of many ad-hoc optimizations whose overall and over-riding criteria for choice are not explicitly understood, even by those who may have written the software that AI systems use. Thus, there is a major challenge for those who wish to understand why an AI system has made some specific recommendation, and how it has reached that particular choice or recommendation.”

Despite having now worked and traveled all over the world, Gelenbe has fond memories of his time at the school then known as Poly, where he wrote his dissertation on stochastic automata under the tutelage of computer science professor and department chair Edward Smith. “Professor Smith was a very quiet and unassuming person who was able to attract and mentor a number of very successful and ambitious Ph.D. students, including Peter Weiner who went on to found the Computer Science Department at Yale University and then became a successful entrepreneur and photographer, and Zvi Kohavi who joined MIT's faculty and later became President of the Technion in Haifa,” Gelenbe recalls. “He oriented our work through encouragement rather than through top-down direction. You must realize that in the late 60s and early 70s, writing a Ph.D. in the field of computers was not very well accepted and understood by others, compared to well-established areas such as control theory, electromagnetic sand microwaves, communication theory or electronics.”

Gelenbe – who founded and directed the Modeling and Performance Evaluation of Computer Systems research group at the renowned INRIA research institution in France – is now a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College, London. (He has now launched new activities with the Polish Academy of Sciences in the wake of Brexit.)  

He has one award that serves as a reminder of his graduate-school years and the cutting-edge research he was doing even then: in 2010 the Polytechnic Alumni Association deemed him a Distinguished Alumnus, the school’s most significant alumni honor.