In Memory of John Riedl: A pioneer of recommender systems

by Steven Snyder on July 16, 2013

Picture of John RiedlYesterday, my friend, John Riedl, 51, passed away after a three-year battle with melanoma. John was one of those quiet, unassuming leaders, not into self-promotion. Yet he leaves a powerful legacy, the recommender system: a bold new class of computing capability that we have come to take for granted in modern life.

The concept of a recommender system is simple. It knows what you like; it knows the tastes and preferences of those who are similar to you. And then, magically it produces a uniquely personalized recommendation for new items, based on those similarities.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because personalized recommendations have been central to Amazon’s business model for a long time. And, now personalized recommendations appear in a myriad of different applications—from the movie suggestions you get from Netflix, to “genius” app recommendations from Apple, to Google’s personalized recommendations of nearby restaurants, placed conveniently on a map.

The spark for Riedl’s clairvoyance came twenty-two years ago, in November 1992, at a scientific conference in Toronto. There, Riedl, and fellow scientist Paul Resnick became inspired to begin a research program on collaborative filtering, a technology that led to the recommendation system.

I met John in April 1996, after he had been working on this idea at the University of Minnesota for four years. Together, John and I, along with three of John’s University of Minnesota colleagues—Joe Konstan, Brad Miller and David Gardiner—founded a company called Net Perceptions.  It was quite the ride. In the space of just five years, we licensed John’s invention to over 250 companies; Amazon was our first.  After co-founding Net Perceptions, John continued his research on recommender systems at the University of Minnesota.  In a sad irony, on July 3, 2013, exactly seventeen years after the incorporation of Net Perceptions, John suffered a stroke that ultimately led to his death.

John received many professional honors, including the prestigious ACM Software System Award in 2010, and the World Technology Award in 2000.  He was named an IEEE Fellow in 2012.

I treasure my seventeen-year friendship with John. A model of integrity, John was inquisitive in his quest for knowledge, and wise with his judgment. He brought people together, and made each one of them feel special.  He celebrated life by living it fully, with passion, vigor, humility and gratitude.

John–who is survived by his wife Maureen, sons Eric and Kevin, daughter Karen, and son-in-law Anthony–carried this same vigor to his battle with melanoma.  John’s posts on Caring Bridge were detailed, informative, and oozing with fascination and intrigue. Each one of his posts would be like reading a scientific detective story.

He would elaborate even further during our lunches together. Our last lunch was on June 11, just four days before he learned that the melanoma had invaded his brain. John told me that all the conventional treatments had been exhausted. His next treatment phase would need to be among the new, unproven experimental drugs.  As he reviewed the options, his eyes seemed to light up as he talked about a new trial that would begin in July.  A specially designed molecular structure would cleverly target the melanoma cells, bond with them, and then pummel them with a heavy dose of toxic substances, sufficient to destroy them.  This high dosage was never possible before, because the treatment has never been able to target only melanoma cells.

This new treatment was successful in mice, but had never been tried on a human.  In July, it would be ready for the first human trial. We had a brief chuckle at the irony that John, a pioneer in computer system personalization, could be the first human to ever receive this new personalized medical treatment.  Sadly, it was not meant to be.  John’s melanoma had advanced too far before the treatment was ready.

A scholarship fund is being set up at the University of Minnesota, Department of Computer Science in John’s memory.  To donate, please, click here.  Contributions are also invited to the Melanoma Research Foundation.

Last night, noting John’s passage on his Caring Bridge site, John’s daughter Karen wrote that one of her dad’s favorite sayings was: “when you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.”    John:  you certainly lived up to this standard and your life has been a model for all who knew you.  May your memory be a blessing.

Prakash Puram July 17, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Thanks for the wonderful write-up about John Riedl. He personalized each and every relationship he encountered and he was a model for humility. May he rejoice and rest in peace while we all mourn his passing. An unfathomable loss for Maureen and his family.
God bless!
Prakash Puram

ed chi July 18, 2013 at 2:56 am

wonderful write up. Thanks for doing it.

P Coicou July 20, 2013 at 11:29 am

What a wonderful, personal and loving tribute to a very special person. May he be in The LORD’S tender care!

Mark Maybury July 27, 2013 at 9:28 pm

John’s vision, innovation, and service before self has embettered all of our lives. For those of us who had the fortune to share some time with him, we were blessed. His vision remains alive and will bring value and joy to many in the future.

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