Prof. Amir Karniel, one of the founders of the Computational Motor Control Workshop, passed away on 2 June 2014, after a two-year battle with cancer, just two weeks short of the Workshop's 10th anniversary. Amir collaborated with many of us, taught some of us, was a friend to many of us, and was an inspiration to all.
Amir was an excellent scientist and an avid science philosopher. Amir's career was short, yet remarkable. He graduated with a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa in 2000, where he worked with Prof. Gideon Inbar and Prof. Ron Meir. He spent two years as a postdoc in the Department of Physiology at Northwestern University Medical School and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, working with Prof. Sandro Mussa-Ivaldi. He returned to the Technion as a research associate, and then transferred to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in 2003. At BGU, he was one of founding members of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and in the last two years of his life served as its head. There, he established the Computational Motor Control Laboratory and later organized the first annual international Computational Motor Control Workshop. His lab flourished and he received national and international recognition and funding from competitive funding agencies. He contributed to several international efforts, such as the EU COST Action on Rehabilitation Robotics, the Israeli group competing in the DARPA Robotics challenge, and the EU USA Topical Team dealing with motor control in space. He also led the US-AID MERC funded project to promote an active lifestyle in teenagers with cerebral palsy in the Middle East (Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Morocco).
Amir's approach to the study of the motor system was notable for its combination of traditional engineering principles – modelling, control theory, and robotics – with a firm emphasis on placing the human being at the center. Amir made significant contributions using this principled approach to many aspects of our understanding of motor control. He developed a theoretical approach to the motor system – unifying reaching and object manipulation – based on the hypothesis that the motor system is an intermittent controller that minimizes transitions. In the context of far-reaching studies on adaptation at different levels of the motor system, he proposed that the system has no internal clock and uses state dynamics to stand in for time representation. The research on the representation of time also led to a systematic exploration of the way humans adapt to delayed force feedback. These studies led to the development of a novel framework for human-centered teleoperation transparency, work for which Amir was awarded the prestigious Juludan Award. This award is granted for outstanding research in the application of modern scientific or engineering techniques to medicine. The studies on teleoperation were the basis for the development of a Turing-like handshake test for motor control. Amir's goal was to develop a machine handshake that is undistinguishable from that of a human. He organized an international competition for developing such a handshake, the first of its kind. In recent years, Amir grew increasingly interested in the clinical applications of his research. One example that demonstrates how his theoretically based approach can have real clinical relevance is his work on predictive control. He showed that the role of our motor memories is to predict the future rather than to store the past. He further showed that individuals with cerebral palsy lack this ability to prepare for future events.
In his research synopsis, Amir wrote that:
I am trying to think of the best way to convey my legacy to my children, my students and my community, a legacy of contributing to my society as a Jewish agnostic, believing in science and the ability of humans to discover and understand everything around us and in us. As an Engineer, I follow the words of Lord Kelvin: "I am never content until I have constructed a mechanical model of the subject I am studying. If I succeed in making one, I understand; otherwise I do not." Following this philosophy, in order to evaluate my understanding of the motor control system I would have to build a robotic device indistinguishable from human in its motor behavior.
My long term goal is to understand how the brain controls movement. I am passionate about brain science, and about the vision of RoboSapiens as the next step in our evolution; I believe that humans can build and understand everything. I also believe that we need to explore space and master the universe. We have to work on these technological challenges along with being ethically sensitive to the capabilities of humans for evil and constructing the social breaks and balances without eliminating or slowing the natural desire of humans to explore and improve the world around us.
Last but not least, Amir was a great teacher. He passed on his passion for engineering and research and his belief in our power to transform the world for the better, both to his students and to his colleagues.
We will miss you, Amir.