Petr Sojka not only about FI: Memories, challenges, and visions
Exclusive Interview with Assoc. Prof. RNDr. Petr Sojka, Ph.D. offers insights into his life, his academic journey, and his connection with the Faculty of Informatics. Read the full article to learn more about the person who was instrumental in the founding of FI MUNI in 1994 and has successfully filled many roles there.
Your life and career path have been intertwined with the Faculty of Informatics, Masaryk University (FI MU) since its inception. We would be delighted if you could share with us some memorable milestones related to your scientific career and directly linked to the faculty.
What was the main motivation for establishing the Faculty of Informatics in 1994?
That's more of a question for the founding dean. Two factors played a role in its establishment: the specifics of informatics as a separate discipline alongside mathematics, and the importance of the need for systematic development of informatics. It didn't succeed on the first try, but conditions in Brno were favorable, partly because the SOFSEM winter schools had been held in Czechoslovakia since 1975.
What has been the faculty's development since 1994, and what do you consider the key moments of its growth and development?
At every institution, key people, shared values, and procedural settings are crucial. Initially, the faculty environment was familial, with a focus on minimizing administration and digitizing faculty activities, and maximizing and guaranteeing academic freedoms.
Soon after the faculty's establishment, a competition for the faculty logo was held, which I won with the FI Ligature theme, inspired by the Penrose triangle.
Ligature is a symbol of quality in visual communication. In the era post-Gutenberg, who extensively used them, their use in digital typography is perceived as a sign of attention to detail, an indicator of quality and professionalism in graphic design.
The individual parts of the triangle are connected in a way that is possible and believable only from one angle of view on the two-dimensional surface of the picture, but not in the real three-dimensional world. It is a reference to an important specific property of informatics, namely the ability to switch between different perspectives on the reality of the problem being solved, switching between different levels of abstraction, and focusing between detail and a high-level perspective. This endless perspective is also referred to in the faculty's chosen and adopted motto, a quote from Blaise Pascal: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." (Pensées, 1670).
The 1996 photograph shows the faculty's minimalist staff, including the first honorary doctor appointed at the suggestion of FI MU, Professor Donald Knuth, a leading and respected figure in informatics. In his inaugural lecture, Prof. Knuth expressed his joy that the outputs of his TeX and METAFONT programs, which moved blacksmithing processes into the digital world of zeros and ones, were widespread in Brno. Besides typesetting outputs of the then faculty information system such as classroom schedules, study catalogs with syllabi of subjects, or telephone directories, he also saw tables of timetables typeset with his Computer Modern font at public transport stops. I took it upon myself to support the TeX typesetting system at FI MU and still teach the rules of typography and document preparation here today.
I have followed the life story of Donald Knuth, one of the founders of the field, since my first encounter with the TeX system. After personal meetings at the TUG 1995 conference, and then directly at FI, he became my lifelong role model.
In 1996, the faculty moved to Botanická Street. How did you experience the faculty's move, and what impact did it have?
I look back with nostalgia on my early days at the Institute of Computer Science, Masaryk University in Burešova. It was on the small green terminals on the ground floor, connected via a switched telephone line to Vienna, that I first used email and accessed the Internet. The move to new premises, along with the Institute of Computer Science MU, enabled rapid development of the faculty and information technologies at MU.
In your academic journey, you have held many roles. What specific roles have you undertaken on this journey, and which of these roles brought you the most joy? What were the key moments in your academic journey at the faculty?
From a professional staff member responsible for supporting TeX, I gradually progressed through a doctorate and habilitation to a recent eight-year service as Vice-Dean for External Relations, International Affairs, and Quality. I am pleased when I see specific results of my work and that of my students. The feeling that I have contributed, even in a small way, to the growth of the number of students or previously unarticulated facts is motivating and uplifting. Joy, when I see students discover and develop their talents in the lab or seminars, fulfills me.
Scientific activity is an integral part of academic work. What are your greatest achievements in research, and what impact have they had on the development of your field? Can you share some of your publications that you consider key? Can you give an example of when your research was successfully applied in practice?
My first doctoral student Radim Řehůřek's publication about the gensim software library has over five thousand citations and documented use in thousands of projects. The genesis of the library, which calculates the semantic similarity of documents, was motivated by the Digital Mathematical Library DML.CZ project, which is still operational nearly two decades later and serves the academic community along with the subsequent project European Digital Mathematical Library EUDML.ORG. In EuDML, we developed the first routinely deployed similarity search engine for mathematical formulas with other doctoral students Martin Líška, Michal Růžička, and Vít Starý Novotný. 😃 You can still try it out on the project website today, more than ten years after the end of this international European project.
Less important in terms of citation metrics, but perhaps with even greater impact, is my research in the field of competitive patterns. It was kicked off by an award for a paper on generating patterns of Czech word division, which I presented at the TUG conference in 1995, where Prof. Knuth sat in the front row and co-decided on the award. The continuous improvement of the method, which effectively solves the seemingly trivial dictionary problem, has accompanied my entire career. On a practical level, improving the word division algorithm and finding more options for word splitting has probably contributed to saving paper and solving the climate crisis. 😉
On a theoretical level, the possibility of describing some of the NP-complete problems reduced to a dictionary problem with competitive patterns keeps me awake at night, and understanding the possibilities and scope of polynomial solutions to this class of problems. A possible topic for a planned sabbatical 😇, so please keep your fingers crossed.
We keep our fingers crossed and are curious about the progress of this solution. What have been the most significant lessons, both scientific and life, that you have gone through, and what have you learned from them? What is the most important thing you would like to pass on to students?
I constantly try to learn and get feedback. The most effective mentor and teacher are the mistakes I have made. So, I have learned to be humble, thankful for recognized mistakes, and try to rejoice in their identification and articulation and grow from them. I often remind myself of a quote by Piet Hein, which Don Knuth placed on the front door of his house to remind himself: “The road to wisdom? Well, it's plain. And simple to express: Err and err and err again, but less and less and less.”
Significant life lessons were my relatively recent health episodes, bilateral pulmonary embolism likely caused by a long-haul flight to the ACL conference in Vancouver, and a recent heart attack, probably caused by an unbalanced “work-life balance” and an unhealthy lifestyle with a lack of exercise. I barely survived both, so I probably still have some unfinished business here in the world. 🙂
We are very sorry to hear that. We hope you are feeling fit now and wish you, above all, robust health. Now, back to the interview: Are there changes in teaching informatics at the faculty that you think have fundamentally influenced the perception of studying informatics? And which changes do you consider the most important historical milestone?
By selecting study programs and their content, FI MU, as the first purely informatics faculty, contributed to the establishment of informatics education in the Czech Republic. Constant changes and reactions to development are necessary; they are continuous, and the need for these changes is accelerating. The emphasis on teaching timeless informatics topics and theoretical foundations and on the quality and rigor of teaching are, in my opinion, correct. However, I dare not select just one milestone.
During your tenure at FI, you also established a multimedia laboratory and a Film Festival. What inspired you to establish the LEMMA laboratory and the Film Festival at the faculty, which this year celebrated its 23rd anniversary? What is the festival's significance for the academic community? Was there anything in LEMMA that was a real challenge for you?
In a course where I created the faculty archival CD All Five Together with students, about the principles of document creation, I realized that just as document preparation has moved to the author's desk (Desktop Publishing), the same shift will follow with multimedia production. In 2000, thirteen students enrolled in the course with new content. Thirteen short films were created. The films were shown as a showcase of student credit films during the exam week - and the festival was born. And since then, we have managed to maintain this festival tradition, including years with COVID and significant limitations on film production. The subjects where films are created are a challenging course in soft skills, sometimes missing at FI MU. Production teams must learn to communicate and agree on the outcome of the film project, which is certainly not trivial. We plan the 24th year for May 17, 2024, and you are cordially invited!
Thank you for the invitation to the Film Festival; we look forward to it and will be happy to help with marketing. Can you now describe a particularly memorable moment in your teaching or working with students?
For instance, in 2009, Andrej Pančík enrolled in the festival course and created the film 'Alone', which anticipated an epidemic similar to COVID-19. He was so hyperactive and full of ideas that I had to rein him in and 'put him in the corner' when he disrupted seminars. At the 100th anniversary of MU, where he received an MU medal, we laughed about it, and he immediately suggested creating a mobile alumni app, drawing on his experience as a student at Oxford University, thereby gaining partners for his numerous entrepreneurial projects.
What role do professional communities, such as the Czechoslovak TeX Users Group, play in your academic journey?
They are significant and dear to my heart. As the chairman of this nonprofit, I strive with colleagues, including Donald Knuth, to contribute to the development of these high-quality and open digital typography technologies.
Which personalities or events have most influenced your academic path or the direction of your research? Have you met any of these individuals personally, and if so, which meeting was most memorable?
Great role models for me have been and are Don Knuth and Associate Professor Jiří Hořejš, my doctoral supervisor in the previous millennium. And many colleagues from the faculty, but in some way, nearly everyone influences and inspires me, so I don't want to leave anyone out in a long list.
I have met Professor Knuth repeatedly, even once he drove me home in his Prius from the TUG 2019 conference, where he played his home organ for us, which he designed, and showed us his library and study. At his second visit to FI, I organized the premiere performance of his organ oratorio Fantasia Apocalyptica, which can be found on the FI MU YouTube channel.
Can you share with us what and with whom you are currently working/collaborating at the faculty?
If my health allows, I am devoted to my favorite topics in computational linguistics, competitive patterns, semantic representation of language, and methods of measuring document similarity. For instance, through 'thought trains', as we colloquially call the representation of documents.
Given your extensive experience, it would be interesting if you could share your vision of how the field of informatics will evolve in the coming years? What do you see as the main trends and challenges in informatics?
Today's revolution is in language models using generative artificial intelligence (Gemini, ChatGPT), initiated and advanced by computational linguists. Like any other technology, it's a good servant but a bad master, and can be misused, for example, to influence public opinion and elections. Another challenge is quantum computing, whose deployment will threaten the currently widespread security infrastructure (PKI). And open problems of efficient computing and computability, such as the P=NP problem, are still waiting to be solved.
Next year, the Faculty of Informatics will celebrate 30 years of its existence. What would you wish for it in the coming years?
A consensus on a common effort and direction for the good of individuals and society and fulfilling the Idea of the University (J. H. Newman).
If you weren't at FI MU and hadn't chosen a career path in academia, what else would you be doing?
Hard to say, maybe I would be involved in efficient computing or database publishing (with TeX, of course ☺️) in the commercial sphere. I enjoy it when I can teach a machine to do routine and computable tasks efficiently.
How do you assess academic work and higher education compared to when you started and today? If it can be summarized in a short text. :)
It's hard to compare. For example, the possibilities and speed of scientific communication in the eighties and today: today I can find a reprint using ChatGPT or search engines within a minute, 40 years ago I received printed abstracts of articles containing my defined keywords a few times a year, and then I typeset correspondence cards to authors with TeX asking them to send printed preprints by mail… On the other hand, it was easier to concentrate and practice deep thinking.
You're right, today it's an art to concentrate amid the huge amount of information and speed characteristic of today's times. Tell us, how do you manage to balance work with family life, the so-called work-life balance, a modern term today? How do you spend your free time, if you have any?
Balancing is difficult for me, workaholism and perfectionism are my known faults, and I'm trying to correct them and err in them less and less, aware of the temporality and replaceability of my steps. I try to fill my free time with travel and movement in nature (on an electric bike and skis), and lately, I'm slowly returning to the favorite activities of my youth and student life (chess and choral singing).
You recently celebrated a significant milestone, your 60th birthday. We extend our heartiest congratulations and wish you abundant health, love, and joy with your family and in your association with FI. We know you as a person full of energy, and we look forward to continuing to encounter you in the corridors of our faculty. We are very grateful for your time and your valuable responses.
Thank you very much for the wishes for the essentials in life and for the opportunity to share thoughts through this interview.