Obituary Remko Scha (1945-2015)

13 november 2015

We are deeply saddened to announce that on 9 November 2015 Remko Scha passed away.

Remko was a professor of computational linguistics at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam, and from the early nineties until his retirement in 2010 he was one of the leading researchers at the Institute for Logic, Language and Computation (ILLC). During his distinguished career as computational linguist, Remko made significant contributions to the semantics of plurals, to the formal theory of discourse, to Data-Oriented Parsing, and various other areas. The Dutch computational linguistics community has lost one of its founders and the international community an influential researcher.

Remko's first contact with natural language processing started in the 1970s in the context of the pioneering question-answering system PHLIQA developed by Philips Natlab. His PhD thesis on natural language questions and answers as well as his early paper on plurals in natural language are still necessary references for any work on the subject. They contain ideas and observations that are not yet properly absorbed in ongoing discussions. For example, few people can do the full range of readings observed for definite plurals. Many, in their attempts of dealing with cumulative readings introduced in Remko’s paper, break either the normal syntactic structure of the sentence or the principle of compositionality. And the deepest problem is perhaps how to deal with the unavoidable explosion of readings in a classical account of this kind. 

Remko’s work on discourse semantics was an equally important contribution in which he developed a computational approach to discourse parsing within the Dynamic Discourse Model (with Livia Polanyi). In the later 1980s and 1990s, together with his students and colleagues, Remko developed Data-Oriented Parsing as a major paradigm in natural language processing and machine translation. In the Data-Oriented Parsing framework, sentence processing does not operate with grammatical rules but with a corpus of previous language experiences. New sentences are processed by combining sub-analyses from previously analyzed sentences in the most probable way. This DOP approach was especially successful in dealing with the longstanding problems of ambiguity and robustness of language processing. The model was used in various concrete applications, leading to an impressively large number of funded projects, both in the Netherlands and abroad. DOP was also taken up by linguists and cognitive scientists, and Data-Oriented Parsing models were developed for LFG- and HPSG-annotated corpora. Looking back, it can be said that Data Oriented Parsing was at the forefront of the statistical revolution that has profoundly changed  the field of computational linguistics.

An enthusiastic and inspiring educator, Remko’s legacy remains now at the UvA as a flourishing and growing Language and Computation group of over 40 members working on a wide range of areas, many of which are within Remko’s original research agenda. Several of his former PhD students have become full professors themselves, including Rens Bod and Khalil Sima’an. Remko supervised and co-supervised over 28 PhD theses at the ILLC and elsewhere. During the few years after his retirement, Remko was ill and yet he continued pursuing his research interests with his usual enthusiasm. As emeritus professor he continued attending the seminars and invited talks, and met with the PhD students he co-supervised together with other faculty.

Besides being a scholar, Remko was also a performing artist working on aleatoric music, algorithmic art, facial art and artificial body manipulation. In 1990, he founded the Institute of Artificial Art Amsterdam which became a breeding ground for algorithmic artists. Remko was active as a performer of installations, exhibitions, concerts, radio programmes and more. His concerts with The Machines, an automated  guitar band where the strings of the guitars are played by electronically controlled fan motors, cables, drills and saws, were unforgettable. Remko effortlessly combined his artistic activities with his scientific and scholarly work, leading in 2003 to the Leonardo Award of Excellence for his article Electric Body Manipulation As Performance Art: A Historical Perspective (with Arthur Elsenaar).

Remko was a most versatile researcher – he is vividly remembered and will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his partner Josien and his daughter Fatima.

Rens Bod

Gepubliceerd door  Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen