Thomas holds a doctoral degree in saxophone performance and a master's degree in music theory, as well as a bachelor's degree in computer science.
He comes to Stevens from the University of Arizona, where he served as associate director of the School of Information and director of the Creative Computing Lab at that university. At CAL, he looks forward to making his contribution in defining an interdisciplinary approach to the arts, humanities and social sciences that involves technology.
“I’m hopeful that we can boost the influence of computing and information science in terms of curriculum and programs because they are going to be the most important kinds of developments in the 21st century.”
As a musician, Thomas says he is personally excited about the school’s renowned music and technology program, considered one of the most innovative in the nation.
His interest in integrating music and technology stretches back to his childhood. Thomas spent his early childhood in Indonesia. His parents, both educators from Indiana, moved overseas to work in schools in Asia, where Thomas was later born (in Singapore).
The family always maintained a connection to their native homeland, returning every summer to their Indiana home in Terre Haute. They eventually moved back when Thomas was 13.
But whether overseas in Asia or Midwest America, the Thomas household was always filled with music. His mother, a music teacher, encouraged both her sons to play a variety of instruments.
For Thomas, who has been a musician since picking up the saxophone at the age of 10, jazz was the music that struck the deepest chord.
“It’s uniquely American in that it’s born of a mix of cultures that’s intrinsic to the development and history of the U.S., and when I think about all of our cultural exports, jazz is our musical contribution,” he explains. “I became enamored of the music of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and aspired to play it from the time I was very young. I started playing jazz gigs when I was about 17, and never stopped.
Music, however, wasn’t his only boyhood preoccupation. As part of the first generation of young people who were exposed to personal computers, Thomas learned how to program in Basic, designing computer games and graphics programs.
“Growing up for me was synonymous with the personal computer revolution. When I was eight years old, my mother got an Apple IIe. Mind you, that was only three or four years after Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak developed Apple and succeeded in gaining traction with that computer as the killer app of personal computing.”
And though his intellectual and academic interests steered towards music, Thomas says he had always intended to further his exploration into computing. While a faculty member at the University of Arizona, he enrolled in a series of programming classes, eventually earning a bachelor’s of science in computer science.
“One of the reasons for pursuing this course of study was to see how music and computing could be fruitfully combined in my own research and intellectual activity.”
That combination of music and computing knowledge did indeed prove fruitful. Thomas became co-investigator on a $2.3 million research award from DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to facilitate the interactive creation of jazz music by musicians and computers working together.
In collaboration with investigators from the University of Illinois and Oberlin College, Thomas and his colleagues plan to build MUSICA (MUSical Improvising Collaborative Agent), a new software platform that will attempt to understand and improve the ways in which computers communicate and collaborate with humans. The project, according to Thomas, explores the frontiers of artificial intelligence in ways that mimic human creativity.
“Making music up on the spot that is of a very high sophistication and emotional value is a difficult thing for humans to do. Think of a jazz musician or any musician just improvising. Creating musical phrases on the spot extemporaneously takes many years of practicing to gain both the instrumental proficiency and the knowledge of what to say in a particular situation. It’s one of the pinnacles of human capability. So we want to try to model that and simulate it as much as possible with a software system.”
The DARPA-funded research project — only in its first year of a five-year program — will continue at Stevens, says Thomas.
“We’re in the beginning stages of that research project. But we have resubmitted the grant to make Stevens the prime performer on the grant. Although as dean I won’t be able to participate in the day-to-day research, I’ll be working to bring in people that are capable of continuing that work here at Stevens.”
In addition to MUSICA, Thomas is co-investigator in a research award to create a "Virtual Harlem." The three-dimensional virtual reality environment, intended for simulation, modeling, urban planning and game design, among other purposes, presents a geographically accurate representation of 125th street Manhattan and includes iconic 1930s landmarks from the golden age of American jazz, such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.
“We see it as a chance to develop the kinds of technological approaches to education that will be exciting to students in the next 20, 30 years, and help them to understand history from a more immersive and experiential standpoint.”
For Thomas, the Virtual Harlem project is an example of the way digital technologies are influencing and intersecting with the arts and humanities. As dean of CAL, Thomas says he embraces the challenge of leading a school that delivers a liberal arts education through a technological lens.
Learning how to think critically and broadly about the world today, and the history of human societies and cultures will always be important, he says, but adds that institutions of higher education must also think about what students need to be competitive and adaptive in the workplace after they graduate.
“My perspective on it is that computing and information are two of the great revolutions that have happened in the last 30, 40, 50 years. There is more data being produced every day than we’ve ever produced before, and this is a trend that’s going to continue,” he says.
“What information do we pull from that data, how do we synthesize that information into knowledge that we can use, and what wisdom can we gain from this kind of synthesized knowledge? So I think it’s important to address not only those hard skills but the importance and role that those paradigms have to play as they influence and inform our own perspective on societies and cultures.”
About Stevens Institute of Technology
Stevens Institute of Technology, The Innovation University®, is a premier, private research university situated in Hoboken, N.J. overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Founded in 1870, technological innovation has been the hallmark and legacy of Stevens’ education and research programs for more than 140 years. Within the university’s three schools and one college, 6,600 undergraduate and graduate students collaborate with more than 290 full-time faculty members in an interdisciplinary, student-centric, entrepreneurial environment to advance the frontiers of science and leverage technology to confront global challenges. Stevens is home to three national research centers of excellence, as well as joint research programs focused on critical industries such as healthcare, energy, finance, defense, maritime security, STEM education and coastal sustainability. The university is consistently ranked among the nation’s elite for return on investment for students, career services programs and mid-career salaries of alumni. Stevens is in the midst of a 10-year strategic plan, The Future. Ours to Create., designed to further extend the Stevens legacy to create a forward-looking and far-reaching institution with global impact.