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Memorial ceremony held for Peter Wittek, U of T professor who went missing in India

Remembering the leading researcher, role model, generous friend, colleague
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Peter Wittek was announced missing on September 29. PHOTO COURTESY OF SRIRAM KRISHNAN/GOFUNDME
Peter Wittek was announced missing on September 29. PHOTO COURTESY OF SRIRAM KRISHNAN/GOFUNDME

On February 3, the Rotman School of Management and the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) held a ceremony in honour of Assistant Professor Peter Wittek, who went missing in India in late September. Wittek was a leading expert in quantum machine learning, and his work at the CDL as a founding academic director sought to lead the charge in the commercialization of these technologies.

An avid mountaineer, Wittek was part of a six-person team that was attempting to summit Mount Trishul, a 7,120 metre-high peak in the Himalaya mountain range of India. On September 29, the Indian National Disaster Response Force received an SOS distress signal that originated from Wittek’s camp. Search and rescue operations were unsuccessful, and it is believed that Wittek’s camp was caught in an avalanche. His body has yet to be found.

In a statement to U of T News, Professor Ken Corts, Acting Dean of the Rotman School of Management, said that “Peter’s loss is keenly felt.” Wittek is remembered by Corts as “an exceptional contributor to Rotman and U of T — and a wonderful colleague.”

Over a hundred U of T students, staff, and faculty, as well as members of the artificial intelligence (AI) community attended his ceremony on Monday. A number of speakers who were close to Wittek shared stories of his brilliance and “generosity of spirit.”

Wittek’s brother, Gergo Oberfrank, came from Hungary to attend the ceremony. He expressed the anguish that he and his family feel at the possibility that they will never find Wittek’s body. Oberfrank began his speech by saying goodbye to not only “a brother for [him], but a father figure too.” The two had an 11-year age difference, and Wittek was his biggest role model.

Chief Technology Officer and Founder of Multiverse Computing Samuel Mugel also spoke about looking up to Wittek, even before he met him. Mugel recounted his time starting out in the field of quantum computing, saying, “What I found difficult was that I didn’t really have many role models [that were both] entrepreneurs and scientists — and this is really the position that Peter started to take for me because I saw him as someone that really managed to find the balance between an entrepreneur’s career [while] simultaneously [pursuing] fundamental research.”

CDL Founder Ajay Agrawal also marvelled at Wittek’s eagerness to pursue the entrepreneurial side of cutting-edge technologies. “I knew that he was a scholar and he had tendencies as a theorist. And I know that theorists can be resistant to thinking about such crass things as commercialization,” Agrawal remarked with a bit of wryness in his voice.

This seems to be the crux of what made Wittek such a consequential academic and caused his fame in the field of quantum machine learning to be so enduring. “He was both interested in the way nature works, [and] in understanding the underlying science, but also interested in commercialization,” noted Agrawal.

Wittek was not only influential for his work in the field as a whole, but also for providing critical advice and guidance to a number of budding researchers and entrepreneurs. Mugel noted that Wittek was the one who had encouraged him to apply for the CDL Quantum Stream.

“I think there [are] an awful lot of people here who can tell you something similar — that Peter turned up at a key turn in their life and… with advice or a push in the right direction, helped us in these really difficult decisions.” Multiverse Computing is now a cutting-edge provider of quantum computing and AI software for the financial industry.

Khalid Kurji, a senior venture manager at the CDL, spoke on behalf of the team behind the Quantum Machine Learning Stream, of which Wittek was a crucial part. Kurji spoke on Wittek’s cosmopolitan outlook, remarking that his team’s “aspirations to lead globally could only become a reality because our academic director [Wittek] considered the entire planet his neighbourhood and treated every single person as if they grew up next door to him.”

To Kurji, Wittek’s defining characteristic was his generosity. “He gave the full of himself — of his enthusiasm and intellect — into everything he did.”

Agrawal also shared this sentiment, and, as evidence, pointed out the surprising number of students who have emailed to express their gratitude for having had Wittek in their lives. “I think people have a need to tell somebody how much someone has touched their life, changed the trajectory of their life,” Agrawal reflected.

Agrawal also shared the story of how he first met Wittek. After reading Wittek’s book, Quantum Machine Learning: What Quantum Computing Means to Data Mining, Agrawal sent him an email with a few questions. “Very often when I send the author a question about their book, they either don’t reply or if they do reply they might send a very quick one-sentence response.”

On the screen behind him, Agrawal projected an image of Wittek’s response to his question. The email was too long to fit on a single slide, and had to be shown in two parts. He had received it 48 minutes after his initial email. “It’s remarkable how much you can tell about a person from the very first interaction,” Agrawal noted.

“I’m an economist; I was not in his community. And I was surprised that he would take the time to send me such a thorough response and then ask me if I had more questions. And I thought, ‘This is my kind of person.’”