MIT computer scientist Arvind Mithal passes away at 77

20 Jun 2024

Dr Arvind Mithal. Image: M Scott Brauer/MIT

Mithal led the development of two parallel computing languages, Id and pH, and also founded two start-ups – one of which went on to be acquired by Broadcom.

Renowned computer scientist and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Dr Arvind Mithal died this week at the age of 77.

Mithal had been a member of the MIT faculty for nearly 50 years. He was the Charles W and Jennifer C Johnson professor in computer science and engineering at MIT and head of the Faculty of Computer Science in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

An expert on computer architectures, parallel computing and digital design, Mithal also led the Computation Structures Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Originally from India, Mithal graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India, where his interest in parallel computing first ignited. He then went on to complete a master’s degree and PhD in computer science from the University of Minnesota in the 1970s.

At Minnesota, Mithal studied operating systems and mathematical models of program behaviour. After teaching at the University of California at Irvine for four years, he joined the faculty at MIT in 1978 and was associated with the institution until his death on Monday (17 June).

“Arvind was both a tremendous scholar in the fields of computer architecture and programming languages and a dedicated teacher, who brought systems-level thinking to our students,” Prof Anantha Chandrakasan, chief innovation and strategy officer and dean of engineering at the university, told MIT News.

“He was also an exceptional academic leader, often leading changes in curriculum and contributing to the Engineering Council in meaningful and impactful ways. I will greatly miss his sage advice and wisdom.”

‘Wonderful, warm human being’

Mithal led the development of two parallel computing languages, Id and pH, in the years following his appointment at MIT. He went on to publish a book on the latter language in the early 2000s, condensing decades of research.

Other than programming, Mithal also had an interest in digital hardware design. He founded a fabless manufacturing company for semiconductor chips called Sandburst at the turn of the century, which was later acquired by Broadcom.

He and his students also developed Bluespec, a programming language designed to automate the design of chips. Building off this work, he co-founded a start-up of the same name in 2003 to develop practical tools that help engineers streamline device design.

“Brilliant scientist, wonderful warm human being, it was a privilege to know him,” Dr Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale University and one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People 2024, posted on X. “This is a terrible loss.”

“[Mithal’s] breakthroughs power everything from chips to data centres. A brilliant mind and dedicated teacher. RIP,” added Om Malik, partner emeritus at True Ventures.

Mithal was a member of the Indian National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, where he received the Harry H Goode Memorial Award for significant contributions to theory or practice in information processing.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic