In memoriam: Robert Keller, Harvey Mudd Computer Science Professor

A man wearing a brown coat smiles at the camera.
Robert “Bob” Keller, a professor of computer science and music at Harvey Mudd College, died Sept. 16. (Courtesy: Harvey Mudd College)

Robert “Bob” Keller, a professor of computer science and music at Harvey Mudd College, died Sept. 13 surrounded by his family.

Keller joined HMC’s faculty and became chair of the newly formed computer science department in 1991. He was also a talented jazz musician, playing trumpet and piano in performances with students as part of his Jazz Improvisation class throughout his years at HMC. 

“Bob was a deeply valued member of the HMC community, celebrated for his contributions to Computer Science and the arts,” Dean of Faculty Lisa Sullivan said in an email Sept. 16. “We will miss him dearly.”

Throughout his nearly 30 years spent at HMC, Keller taught computer science classes including Computability and Logic, Neural Networks and Artificial Intelligence. Keller also advised recent computer science clinic teams with projects including improving responses to questions about music for Amazon Music, applying latent topic models to transactional data for FICO and exploring new location sharing methods for Intel.

Keller’s primary research project was Improvisation Advisor, a software application for jazz musicians to compose music and practice improvising. “Impro-Visor” uses source material from famous jazz musicians to teach users to improvise. Since its release in 2006, the user base has grown to 7,500 worldwide, according to HMC’s website.

The research project built upon a lifelong passion for music. An avid trumpet player, Keller posted many performance videos and original compositions on his Youtube channel dedicated to jazz music.

Marcos Acosta HM ’23 was in both Keller’s Computer Science 42 and Jazz Improvisation classes. He appreciated Keller’s ability to connect with him over both of his interests.

“He was a bit of a role-model for me because not only did he do both computer science and music, but he excelled at both of them,” Acosta said.

“He wanted to make students more confident in the music they played and how they communicated themselves musically,” Acosta said. “He had a huge love for music that he wanted to pass on to the students in his class.”

Students remembered Keller’s openness to helping students outside of class, with many attending his office hours to understand the course material and to talk through difficult homework problems.

Anan Aramthanapon HM ’23 was a student in Keller’s Computer Science 42: Principles and Practice course. He said Keller inspired him to take on new challenges.

“Professor Keller was the first professor who taught me how important it is to ask for help when you need it,” Aramthanapon said. “Coming to Mudd, I had never experienced a class that was this challenging before, which I believe is true for many incoming Mudd students. His class taught me that it is OK to ask for help and [doing so] is a great way to learn.”

Keller received a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering. After graduating in 1968, he went on to earn his doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley in 1970.

He then taught at Princeton University from 1970 to 1976, the University of Utah from 1976 to 1986 and UC Davis from 1989 to 1991. From 2018 to 2019, Keller spent his sabbatical in UC San Diego’s music department.

Keller also previously worked at Quintus Computer Systems, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Aerospace Corporation.

He leaves behind his wife, Noel, sons, Franz and Patrick, sister Irma Ward and brother, Dennis Keller.

His family has requested that contributions in his honor be made to the Jazz Education Network’s Scholarship Program, the American Brain Tumor Association and the Sierra Club Foundation.

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