Set to Retire This Year, ‘Father of Real-Time Computing’ Jack Stankovic Is Leaving Behind a Legacy of Seminal Research and a Lasting Impact on UVA

John A.

John A. “Jack” Stankovic has been called the “father of real-time computing.” (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

He has published more than 400 papers, including nine best-paper and two test-of-time award winners.

His Google Scholar H-index score — which measures research output and impact — is double what is considered “excellent,” hovering at 123.

And his often-groundbreaking research has been cited more than 65,200 times.

John A. “Jack” Stankovic’s impact on computer science research is undeniable. His 1988 position paper on real-time computing catalyzed a new area of research in computer science and helped earn him one of his three technical achievement awards — the equivalent of lifetime achievement honors.

Now, as Stankovic — BP America Professor in the University of Virginia Department of Computer Science — prepares to retire, his influence not only on research but the students he’s mentored over his 43-year career is being felt across academia.

“It is rare for a researcher to move between fields, but Jack has followed the technology,” said University Professor Emeritus Anita K. Jones, who helped hire Stankovic in 1997 to succeed her as chair of computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at UVA. “His career has been remarkable because he has been a leader in several distinctly different research disciplines.”

His work is distinctive for another reason too, Jones said.

“A lot of research is at the technology level, finding new ideas, but it doesn’t deal with real-life problems,” she said. “Jack’s research does.”

How it Began

It wasn’t long after earning his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering at Brown University in 1970 that Stankovic saw how research could directly affect the real world. He took a job at Bell Laboratories, which was looking for programmers for its anti-ballistic missile system.

“There weren’t many programmers then, so Bell taught us how to program in six weeks,” he said. “I started programming for a real system, and I really enjoyed it. It was a real problem, and you could see what you programmed was actually controlling radars and defensive missiles.

“The code I wrote I could see was finding the missiles, and then other people’s code tracked them, and other people’s code was shooting them down. I started loving computer science, but I didn’t know enough because I’d never taken any courses.”

Having always wanted to teach, Stankovic returned to Brown for his master’s and Ph.D., graduating in 1979. He then spent 17.5 years as a professor at the University of Massachusetts.

There, Stankovic wrote his groundbreaking paper “Misconceptions About Real-Time Computing: A Serious Problem for Next-Generation Systems,” which was published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers journal Computer. The paper would be the first — but not last — time Stankovic influenced the direction of research and education in emerging computer science fields.

“Father of Real-Time Computing”

Real-time systems collect and process data to deliver accurate results, not fast exactly, but within task-specific deadlines. The deadlines are technically hard to achieve as they respond to changing conditions.

Failing to meet timing requirements in systems he knew would become increasingly complex and widespread – in areas such as medical devices, aviation electronics and defense systems – could lead to “economic, human and ecological catastrophes,” Stankovic wrote in the 1988 paper.

Alan Burns, professor of computer science at the University of York

"By establishing real-time systems as a first-class area of research, systems have become more capable, and arguably safer, as otherwise the timing aspects of systems may largely have been overlooked in education, academic research and industrial practice."

Alan Burns, professor of computer science at the University of York

“To make the system correct, you had to deal with both the logical correctness and the time correctness,” Stankovic said recently. “People before that were just looking at logical correctness and trying to get it to work in time. But it was completely fuzzy what ‘in time’ meant.”

Crucially, Stankovic argued that academia, industries and governments must coordinate “so that academic researchers will be familiar with key problems faced by system developers, and system developers will be aware of relevant new theories and technologies.”

While others shared the viewpoints Stankovic laid out, as the sole author, he came to be called by some the “father of real-time computing.”

“The paper articulated distinct challenges not faced by other branches of computer science,” said Iain Bate, professor of dependable real-time systems and deputy head of the Department of Computer Science at Britain’s University of York. “This then led to unique theories and solutions being developed.”

York, which developed one of Europe’s preeminent programs in real-time and distributed systems, presented Stankovic with an honorary doctorate in 2015.

“We often used his paper, and others by Jack, as part of research proposals,” said Alan Burns, a professor and former head of York’s computer science department. “We suspect others did as well. This allowed the real-time system community to grow.”

“By establishing real-time systems as a first-class area of research, there have been significant impact case studies and consequently improvements in the dependability of systems across a wide range of domains including automotive and avionics,” Burns said. “This has meant that systems have become more capable, and arguably safer, as otherwise the timing aspects of systems may largely have been overlooked in education, academic research and industrial practice.”

A “Smart” Revolution

Stankovic’s research continued to break ground after he arrived at UVA. Years before “smart technology” and the “internet of things” became common terms, he and his colleagues started thinking about what the future would hold for real-time systems.

They saw that embedded and real-time systems were already converging with wireless sensor networks, and in their 2005 seminal paper “Opportunities and Obligations for Physical Computing Systems,” they predicted a “technical, economic, and social revolution.”

“We envision data and services that will be available any place, any time, to all people, not just technically sophisticated organizations and individuals,” the authors wrote.

The elements for “pervasive computing” already existed. What was needed, they argued, was a focus on a domain they called “physical computing systems” based on the “seamless integration of computing with the physical world via sensors and actuators.”

Now called cyber-physical systems, or CPS, examples include internet-connected appliances, “smart” buildings and infrastructure equipped to collect and analyze data to maximize efficiency – including algorithms to help decision makers resolve priority conflicts, and wearable devices that monitor an individual’s health.

Recognizing the breadth of expertise needed for what would make up the broad field of cyber-physical systems, Stankovic and his real-time colleagues recruited researchers in control theory, signal processing, machine learning and other technologies.

Within a few years, the National Science Foundation took the unusual step of creating a dedicated funding program for cyber-physical systems, and Stankovic had an advisory role in defining the key research questions to be asked.

Jack Stankovic, left, Nan Wang, center, and Hongning Wang are developing the system.

Professor of computer science Jack Stankovic (from left), student Nan Wang and associate professor Hongning Wang are developing a system to help caregivers of dementia patients. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Stankovic, a member of the National Academy of Engineering Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, also co-chaired the academy’s Committee on 21st Century Cyber-Physical Systems Education, which produced a study and report on cyber-physical systems education in 2016.

And he contributed to another seminal paper, “Cyber-Physical Systems: The Next Computing Revolution,” and authored “Research Directions for the Internet of Things” about a class of cyber physical systems, which has been cited more than 2,000 times.

Keeping it Real

It wasn’t just Stankovic’s association with high-profile publications that earned him those technical achievement awards, each from different IEEE research communities. The most recent, the Technical Committee on Cyber-Physical Systems Technical Achievement Award, came in 2022.

The previous two were the Technical Committee on Real-Time Systems Award for Outstanding Technical Achievement and Leadership in 2000 and the inaugural Technical Community on Distributed Processing Distinguished Achievement Award in 2006.

There are entire bodies of research behind the honors. “Sometimes I do feel pride for getting this type of award from three different societies,” Stankovic said, noting that although the areas overlap, they addressed different sets of problems arising from advances in computing.

Among his significant projects was VigilNet, funded in part by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Stankovic’s UVA team built a real-time battlefield surveillance system involving wireless sensor networks – technologies entailing both real-time and distributed systems problems that Stankovic had been part of developing, such as wireless communications, power management and security.

In the cyber-physical sphere, Stankovic has been co-leading a smart health project to help Alzheimer’s patient caregivers manage stress they’re often not aware they are experiencing in the moment. The team provides in-home kits that detect rising stress or mood changes from the caregiver’s voice. The system converts the audio to text, analyzes it and sends various types of prompts to the caregiver’s cellphone.

Both projects embody the overarching theme to his life’s work.

“How does the real world influence the software and vice versa? Algorithms are based on data, and if the data’s based on nonreal-world situations, what good is it?” Stankovic said.

For example, the caregiver’s stress-detection system might work perfectly in a quiet room, but what happens if a TV is on, a dog is barking or noise is coming from outside?

“You have to ask, how does the physical world interact with the cyber and how do you make the cyber robust enough to handle what the physical world’s really throwing at it?”

Shaping Computer Science at UVA

By the time Stankovic joined UVA’s faculty in 1997, he was an IEEE fellow and Computer Society Golden Core Member, named with the inaugural class for the institute’s 50th anniversary. He also had won the first of two IEEE meritorious service awards and was elected a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery.

But he wasn’t recruited to UVA solely because of his research, Jones said.

“Jack also had a demonstrated talent for bringing people together, often from disparate research communities, to attack problems in computer science,” Jones said.

She cited UVA Engineering’s Link Lab, which he co-founded and directed until stepping down this year, as a recent example.

Link Lab is a center for cyber-physical research with more than 200 graduate students and about 40 faculty members from computer science and multiple engineering disciplines. It’s an intentionally non-siloed space to encourage collaboration among peers and with industry and government partners to address real-world needs.

Anita K. Jones, University Professor Emeritus of computer science

"A lot of research is at the technology level, finding new ideas, but it doesn’t deal with real-life problems. Jack’s research does."

Anita K. Jones, University Professor Emeritus of computer science

Since 2018, the center has brought in tens of millions of dollars in grants, and it offers qualifying students a graduate certificate in cyber-physical systems.

“The Link Lab is what I think engineering and computer science need to be in the future, because you don’t solve real problems by stove-piped technologies,” Stankovic said.

Stankovic was also influential in bringing the computer science degree to more students. During his seven and a half years as computer science chair, he pushed for the department to make a Bachelor of Arts in computer science available to non-engineering students. It took nearly 20 years and many other people to institute, but today, about 45% of the department’s majors are students from UVA’s College of Arts and Sciences.

His role in establishing the multidisciplinary computer engineering program, jointly administered by computer science and the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is also a part of his UVA legacy in which Stankovic takes pride.

But no academic’s legacy is complete without students.

“What Would Jack Do?”

When Stankovic turned 70 a few years ago, some of his Ph.D. advisees hosted a daylong conference and dinner in his honor. People traveled from Europe and China to attend. There, the students announced they had raised more than $50,000 to establish the John A. Stankovic Outstanding Graduate Student Research Award.

And they did the math on his Ph.D. academic tree, determining some 450 people are working at top universities and in industries around the world – descended from the 44 Ph.D. students and eight postdocs Stankovic has mentored over his career.

In 2021, he was awarded a UVA Research Mentor Award – another of his many honors and distinctions for education, research and service.

“Jack values his family above all else – his traditional and academic family,” said Bate, his colleague at York. “I recall being in his office in 2012 and he showed me the book his former Ph.D. students created for him. It clearly meant a lot to him. Later at an event I held for some of my former Ph.D. students, I remembered this moment and emailed Jack afterwards to recall how my academic family was also important to me.”

Meiyi Ma, a recent UVA graduate and assistant professor of computer science at Vanderbilt University, would agree. Stankovic officiated at her wedding, and he walked another student down the aisle.

Ma said she wouldn’t be a faculty member now but for his encouragement – and he remains her guide.

“He met with us every week and knew every detail of our work,” Ma said. “He gave us the freedom to find and work on the research that we are interested in and always inspired us to go to a higher level. He treats every student equally.

“When I advise my students, I often think, ‘What would Jack do?’”