New Frontiers in Robotics Technology: A Conversation with Dr. Alon Wolf

New Frontiers in Robotics Technology: A Conversation with Dr. Alon Wolf

Nov 08, 2019

Dr. Alon Wolf is one of the world's foremost inventors, researchers, and educators in the cutting-edge field of robotics. After receiving his bachelor's, masters, and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering at Israel's prestigious Technion University, Dr. Wolf was involved in work at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine, the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and the Institute for Computer-Assisted Orthopedic Surgery at West Penn Hospital. Presently, Dr. Wolf serves as the founding director of the Biorobotics and Biomechanics Laboratory at the Technion Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, as well as director of Technion's F.I.R.S.T. (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) outreach project, which encourages youth to study and pursue careers in engineering, science, and technology.

Ahead of his November 18th presentation at the congregation, Professor Wolf spoke with Beth El about his passion for robotics, Israel's status as a global leader in science and technology, and the need to nurture the next generation of inventors.

How did you get into robotics?

I was always interested in learning how things worked. I used to take apart my father's camera and put it back together all the time! I found something I loved, and I knew I would devote my life to it. So it was quite natural for me to study electronics and robotics, first in high school and later at The Technion, where I earned my bachelor's, masters, and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering. My romance with robotics began at Technion. Before graduate school, I designed technology for the first version of the F-16 fighter plane. My current work helps Israel's Olympic athletes improve their performances. At the most elite levels of athletic competition, the difference between first and second place is sometimes just a few tenths of a second or a minor change in arm placement. It's the marginal gains that make the difference. So our research at The Technion's Israeli Center for Olympic Research provides Israeli Olympic athletes with the data and tools necessary to increase their results by those marginal but crucial percentages.

You’re best known for the invention of the robotic snake. What is the robotic snake, and what are its real-world applications? 

My career in medical robotics started with my Ph.D. thesis, which would eventually become the SpineAssist [a small robotic arm that allows surgeons to map out a patient's spinal anatomy then assists them during the procedure]. After my Ph.D., I became a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where I first met and collaborated with Dr. Howie Choset, who created a comprehensive program in snake robots. We developed our original snake robot for urban search-and-rescue operations, and it was first used at Ground Zero after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Later, Dr. Choset and I co-founded a company called MedRobotics to develop the Flex Robotic System (FRS), a miniature version of the search and rescue snake robot, which can reach body cavities beyond the surgeon's direct line of sight, especially in a patient's head and neck.

The Technion has generated countless technological inventions. To what do you attribute the university’s - but also the State of Israel’s - prolific innovations? 

Israel can be a very challenging geopolitical environment, which forces Israelis to be creative in their solutions to many problems. There's a good reason why Israel is known as the "Startup Nation": necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. We live in a very unfriendly environment, so we needed a university that could produce technology for our civil society and military. The Technion was the first technical university in this part of the world and has become a "Top-100" global university, a true center of innovation, the M.I.T. of Israel. At every critical junction in Israeli history, Technion graduates have produced game-changing technology - from microelectronics like USB memory sticks to the Iron Dome [an air defense system used by Israel to protect civilian areas from short-range rockets, artillery shells, and mortars].

[Former New York City mayor] Michael Bloomberg once joked that Technion graduates are the only scientists in the world who could turn Jaffa-oranges into semiconductors. Israelis are endlessly curious and are not afraid of failing. After all, part of Jewish tradition is to ask questions. [The Technion] encourages our students to ask questions and challenge themselves. We don't view failure as a bad thing, it's not a shameful thing. In some cultures, failure is embarrassing. In Israel, our mentality is: Ok, you failed. Now try again - and keep trying - until you're successful. These are the most important factors for success. 

You also founded Technion F.I.R.S.T. (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), an international non-profit organization that hosts robotics competitions and events. Why is it important to encourage young students to study and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)? 

Lionel Messi - perhaps the greatest soccer player of all-time - didn't start playing when he was 20. Messi became the greatest because he began practicing and loving the game at an early age. We need to inspire young children to see the beauty of science and engineering. To maintain Israel's status as the "Startup Nation," we need to nurture the next generation of inventors who will develop new technology and medicine that benefits the global population. 

So the goal of F.I.R.S.T. is to have more students pursue a bachelor's degree in a STEM field. To do that, we must hook them at an early age by making science fun through robotics competitions. To date, over 15,000 Israeli students - from first graders to high school seniors - have participated in a F.I.R.S.T. robotics competition. Our team from Magidah just won a silver medal in the World Robotics Championship in Dubai. The Israeli flag was raised in an Arab country, and President Netanyahu personally congratulated the team when they returned. 

[Robotics competitions] are an exciting opportunity for our students. But to build better robots and earn top results in the competitions, our students know they need to study math and physics in school. Now, these students are prepared to meet extremely hard challenges, but they also learn how to collaborate. Science is a global language. We have Muslims, Christians, Jews, and even Haredi students working together in F.I.R.S.T. At the world championships, the Israeli team won the award for being the most cooperative and supportive, because they helped other groups, including Arab teams, solve their problems.

What’s your advice to aspiring scientists? 

We don't need every young student to become a scientist. We need lawyers. We need writers. We need artists, musicians, and actors. Good engineers are not just inspired by science; they're inspired by the arts as well. But if a young person likes to take things apart and see how they work, wants to understand the physics of things, we must encourage them to pursue those passions to its fullest potential. Young students should absorb as much information as possible: take all the courses you can, read all you can, ask all the questions you can. Young STEM students must be active in their pursuit of knowledge.

What emerging trends or new technologies excite you the most and how will they impact everyday people? 

We live in an era of unprecedented innovation. Technologies are maturing at an exponential rate. The industrial revolution was about steam power. Then the assembly line revolutionized production. Then automation through machines and robots made for even more sophisticated assembly lines. We are now approaching the fourth revolution: the singularity. A point where many technologies that have been developed in parallel - the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, artificial intelligence (A.I.), and robotics - will converge and revolutionize the way human beings live, learn, and work.

What can Beth El members expect from you talk on November 18th? 

The robotics revolution is happening in real-time, as we talk right now. So, if you can't beat them, join them. People can not ignore the digital and robotics evolution. If you're not exploring this trend, you're going to get left behind.

Join us on Monday, November 18, 2019, at 6:45 pm, for an evening with Professor Alon Wolf, one of the world's leading experts in the field of robotics. An optional light dinner is available in the Kolker Room at 6:00 pm Registration is required. For more information or to RSVP for this event, please click here.