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Inaugural Morton B. Friedman Prize Honors Robotics Innovator

May 12 2015 | By Jesse Adams

Jonathan Weisz, a computer science PhD candidate at Columbia Engineering, has been named the recipient of the inaugural Morton B. Friedman Memorial Prize for Excellence.

Jonathan Weisz

Named after the beloved professor and senior vice dean who was an integral part of Columbia Engineering for nearly 60 years, the prize honors undergraduate and graduate students who exemplify “Mort’s” legacy of academic excellence, visionary leadership, and outstanding promise for the future.

Weisz’s work at the Columbia University Robotics Group, led by Computer Science Professor Peter K. Allen, advances real-time grasp planning through brain-computer interfaces. He has developed code for a range of robotics platforms spanning research and industry and published several papers at peer-reviewed conferences. His research with Allen has included measures of grasp stability under uncertainty, “human-in-the-loop” grasping, and data-driven hand design optimization. He also helped manage integrating the various components of the Robotics lab’s grasping platform, arm trajectory planning, vision, grasp planning, and tactile sensing.

“The work our lab is doing with brain-computer interfaces and assistive robotics is exploring how far we can push practical, affordable technologies to help people with motor impairments regain some autonomy,” said Weisz, who is set to graduate this month.

The Morton B. Friedman Memorial Prize for Excellence is awarded periodically to an undergraduate or graduate student who best exhibits Professor Friedman’s characteristics of academic excellence, leadership, and outstanding promise.

Weisz participated in Phase 1 of DARPA’s Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) Challenge to create a manipulator capable of high-level tasks and adapting to real-world environments with little supervision, as well as the DARPA Robotics Challenge to develop innovative ground robots for use in disaster response operations. Previously, as a student and researcher at Johns Hopkins and the University of Southern California, he contributed to augmented reality projects to combat phantom limb pain and small devices to measure motor impairment of cerebral palsy and osteoarthritis patients.

Professor Friedman, who founded the Division of Mathematical Methods, the precursor to the applied mathematics component of the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, chaired the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics for 14 years. In his role as associate dean, vice dean, and senior vice dean, he was in the vanguard of engineering education and helped shaped the School for many decades. He died last year at age 86.

I'm very humbled by the link to someone who contributed so much,” Weisz said. “I'm hopeful that the community of researchers that Dr. Friedman helped build will continue to have an impact."