Gator Nation News

20 Questions with… José Fortes, 2019-2020 Teacher/Scholar of the Year

José Fortes, the AT&T Eminent Scholar and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering, recently received a letter from President Fuchs announcing that he’d received the highest faculty honor at UF: Teacher/Scholar of the Year. Fortes, whose research interests include cloud computing, biodiversity informatics and human-machine cooperative intelligence, adds this latest honor – bestowed in recognition of excellence in teaching and distinction in scholarly activity – to a long list of accolades and awards.

He gamely agreed to answer 20 questions, from serious to silly, for Gator Nation News.


Who or what motivated you to do well in school?
My mother. She was a homemaker who read extensively and sought perfection in everything she did. (His father was a technical draftsman “who could do anything related to engineering.”)
When did you see your first computer?
In 1972. I was 18 years old and in my freshman year in Luanda, Angola. The computer filled an entire room.
What was your first professional job?
I was as an avionics engineer in charge of maintenance of airplane components used for communications, navigation and control. It exposed me to the technological marvels of airplanes. Most people do not give a second thought to an airplane having everything that a city has, including electrical power, water and sewage systems, entertainment, communication systems, air conditioning, food providers and more. On top of having to pack and interconnect all of it into an airplane frame, engineers also have to make the “city” able to fly, withstanding all kinds of weather and extreme conditions and reliably navigating from any place to any destination with predictable travel times. This amazing technological achievement is only possible because many computers work together to automate the operation of all the airplane subsystems with minimal human assistance. This provided much of the motivation for me to come to the US to get an advanced degree in electrical and computer engineering.
Who, living or dead, would you most like to meet?
John von Neumann, who advanced multiple areas of engineering and science, including many fundamental contributions to the invention of modern computers.
What did you want to be when you were little?
A medical doctor. I like people and it was an obvious profession where I could help people.
When you’re not researching and teaching, what do you enjoy doing?
Going to the beach.
What’s your go-to snack food?
Your favorite place to travel?
A favorite saying?
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” This is attributed to Aristotle (some argue that this attribution is indirect). What I have gotten from this saying that I apply in my life is that everything becomes easier if one makes it a habit. It applies to work, social interactions, exercise and more.
A skill we might not know about?
I can crack a good joke occasionally …
If a movie is ever made about you, what would the title be and who would you want to star in it?
“Not a Big Deal,” starring Tom Hanks
What are some of the attributes of the best students you’ve taught?
Being self-driven, a rigorous thinker, persistent, collegial, and a good communicator.
What is the best part about working at UF?
The opportunity to pursue my own ideas working with great students, staff and colleagues.
What do you believe is the greatest challenge facing college students today?
Remembering that education that is broad and covers fundamental knowledge will serve them better in the long run than only learning technologies which will become obsolete in a few years.
If someone gave you $1 million to use on a professional project, what would you do with it?
I would investigate how to build intelligent computer systems that are capable of providing answers to specific questions and, when they do not have sufficient confidence in their answers, finding other computers or people who can provide better answers.
iPhone or Android?
Would you rather (safely and temporarily!) travel 1,000 years into the past or 1,000 years into the future?
Into the future. Being able to see how humanity, science and technology evolved from where we are today would be great. Also, I could write many papers after getting back to the present – acknowledging the sources.
What is the most significant development you see coming out of your research area in the coming years?
We will learn how to build smart devices and systems that are sensible, i.e. that are highly knowledgeable but also self-aware of their limitations in serving humans and are capable of engaging better devices or human beings who can overcome those limitations in order to provide services. By this I do not mean primitive “annoying” systems like the automated phone answering services of today. I mean much more sophisticated systems which might, for example, be able to diagnose diseases because they know how to analyze symptoms and medical data, to hypothesize medical remedies and to consult with experts when the system knowledge is insufficient. These systems would not replace humans but would allow humans to focus on human interactions and knowledge discovery, while greatly reducing the cost of services.
If you could give just one piece of advice to all UF students, what would it be?
When deciding what to do professionally, pick something you like doing and is beneficial to many people. Then become the best at it – or, at least, very good at it.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Study computers because one day they will touch every aspect of life,” told to me in 1971