Oral-History:Richard Klafter

About Richard Klafter

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Richard D. (Dick) Klafter, one of the early leaders in the field of robotics and automation and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, was born on 5 August 1936 and died 11 November 2019. He received an undergraduate degree at MIT, two graduate degrees from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the City University of New York (1969). A devoted educator, he had a long teaching career at Drexel University and later Temple University where he served as Director of Graduate Studies in the College of Engineer. In addition, he co-authored one of the early robotics textbooks, Robotic Engineering: An Integrated Approach (1989).

In 1986, Klafter was elevated to IEEE Fellow for his contributions to robotics education and graduate training in electrical and computer engineering. He was a founding member of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Council which later became the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society and served as President of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, 1994-1995. During his term as President, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine began publication in 1994.

About the Interview

RICHARD KLAFTER: An Interview Conducted by Selma Šabanović, IEEE History Center, 16 May 2012

Interview # 810 for Indiana University and the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

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Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken NJ 07030 USA or ieee-history@ieee.org. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user. Inquiries concerning the original video recording should be sent to Professor Selma Šabanović, selmas@indiana.edu.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Richard Klafter, an oral history conducted in 2012 by Selma Šabanović, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana, for Indiana University and the IEEE.

Interview

Interviewee: Richard Klafter

Interviewer: Selma Šabanović

Place: St. Paul, MN

Date: 16 May 2012

Introduction

Šabanović:

If we could start with your name and where and when you were born.

Klafter:

Richard Klafter, I don’t know whether you want the middle name, but Richard Klafter. I was born in New York City. You want the date?

Šabanović:

If you’re willing to provide it.

Klafter:

Oh sure. August 5th, 1936. A lot of my problems is that I’m old. I don’t feel old, but anyway, yeah.

Šabanović:

Could you tell us a little bit about your early education?

Education and Teaching

Klafter:

I was educated in New York City. I went to public schools. My elementary school was PS (Public School) 117. My high school was Forest Hills High School, which is a really good school. Then I got my undergraduate degree at MIT, two graduate degrees from Columbia, and my Ph.D. from the City University of New York.

Šabanović:

What did you major in?

Klafter:

They were all in electrical engineering, and my Ph.D. had an emphasis in automatic control.

Šabanović:

Who did you work with for your masters’ degrees, and what were your theses?

Klafter:

At Columbia there was no thesis. You just took courses, and I took thirty-two semester hours in one year. I look back and I don’t know how I did it, but I did it. Then I decided I always viewed myself as going into industry, and never imagined that I could have a career. I decided, well, I didn’t really want to go out and work, and Columbia offered, as a few other schools in the United States do, a degree between the master’s degree and the Ph.D. In this case, it was an engineering degree, and in my case, an electrical engineer’s degree. I got an EE degree, which was thirty more credits.

At that point I was married, we had a child, and I had to make some money, so I started tutoring at Columbia. I found I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed teaching. I remember, it’s like yesterday. I was so naïve. I decided I would like to try my hand at teaching at a university. So I marched myself, this is over the summer, I marched myself up to City College that was part of the City University, and I walked in, and I said, “I want to teach.” You just don’t do those kinds of things, but I did.

It turned out one of their faculty members had had a heart attack that week, and it was close to the beginning of the semester. They needed somebody, so they hired me. I never really taught courses before, and I found I really enjoyed it. I thought I was pretty good at it and students seemed to take to me. Forty-two-and-a-half years later okay. I taught for a total of forty-two-and-a-half-years at three different universities, [including] the City University of New York, Drexel University, and Temple University. I finished up at Temple University.

I did seventeen years at Drexel and seventeen-and-a-half-years at Temple. For the most part, I truly enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed interacting with students that was the fun part. And it’s when the administrative part started to get in the way that it really started to sour me on it. Also the students changed. Students changed, I found, they were only interested in getting their degree and getting out. They weren’t interested in learning, and that kind of hurt. And it came time to face the reality, and I said, “You know, I don’t want to do this anymore.” As a matter of fact, I can remember, I was teaching a class, it was my last class of the day, I came back to my office, and I sat behind my desk, and I said, “You know, I don’t want to do this anymore.” It was an epiphany. I retired at the end of that semester and I’ve never looked back. I enjoy what I do now, which is not scholarly, but I feel I’m making a difference. Do you want me to describe any of that?

Šabanović:

Sure.

Volunteer Work for the Blind and Dyslexic

Klafter:

I volunteer for a group called Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. They changed their name, so they are now called Learning Ally. What we do? Our group is all over the country, it has studios all over the country, and we read mostly textbooks. I’ve had an opportunity to read some of the books I used in class. The problem is that there aren’t too many engineers in our group, and they think anybody who’s an engineer can do anything. It just isn’t so. One of the problems is with engineering or technical books there are figures, and you have to describe the figures. You don’t have a script, you do it ad hoc. And it can be really a problem when you don’t have the language. And there are some things I just won’t do. I won’t do, for example, organic chemistry. I don’t know organic chemistry, it’s silly for me to try.

But I’ve been reading recently a book on materials engineering, and I don’t have the language there. Some of it I feel like I’m hanging on by my fingernails, so. It’s interesting. But I’ve interacted with some people who use the service, the students who use the service, and it makes a tremendous difference in their lives. These are people, for the most part they’re not blind, they’re dyslexic, and they’re able to excel because of this. What they do is they have the book in front of them, and when they listen to the text they can follow along, and it helps them learn. And I’ve read things that they’ve written, and it really impacts on them tremendously. So it’s been great. I’ve enjoyed that.

Graduate School and Research

Šabanović:

What was your research project for your Ph.D.?

Klafter:

My research project was optimal control. If you think I remember what the name of the thesis was, I don’t, but it was very mathematical. I used functional analysis to analyze certain aspects of optimal control. I didn’t like my thesis advisor. He was not a very nice person. Although he’s probably dead now, maybe I shouldn’t say that. I learned how to write from him that’s one thing I did. Whenever I wrote papers people always complimented me on the writing, so I got that from him for sure.

I remember one of the things that really turned me off to him was I presented to him the major contribution of the thesis, I didn’t know it was the major contribution, on the elevator going between the sixth floor and the first floor. I mean that was how it went. He said, “Oh yeah, write it up.” Then when he read it he said, “Oh yeah, that’s really, really good.” I mean that’s not the way things should be done. You should be really working with students, so I learned how not to be from him. When I dealt with my own students I tried to be more empathetic and work with them closely. That’s what I really enjoyed. So, that was my Ph.D.

Graduate School, Early Robotics, and Automatic Control Work

Šabanović:

Who was your Ph.D. advisor?

Klafter:

George Krantz was an older Polish man. He was not that old, but from my perspective at the time he was old. Oh, he would be dead by now I’m sure.

I really did almost two thesis. I was cranking out the results in the first one I started working on and I really enjoyed it. I was trying to develop the equivalent of a Laplace transform for difference equations, discreet time systems. I was cranking out the results and it was great. I really enjoyed doing this.

As any graduate student, you read papers, you send away for papers, and then one day my thesis showed up in the mail. I had to drop it and I thought the world had come to an end. It turns out that field disappeared and I got into automatic control. It was the greatest thing that possibly could’ve happened to me. I really, really enjoyed it. I felt I enjoyed teaching it and I enjoyed doing research in it. Then it led to robotics because it was kind of a natural thing.

You’re gonna ask me how I got into robotics?

Šabanović:

I was going to ask you how you got into automatic control.

Klafter:

Basically, I needed support and this guy had some support, so I got this project from him. But, I had to learn it almost all from the beginning because I didn’t have any background in it at all. It was stressful, especially since now we had two children and we had very little money. It was very, very stressful.

Šabanović:

How did you get into robotics?

Klafter:

In the Philadelphia area, there was a computer users group, and I went to a number of their meetings. It had nothing to do with IEEE, or anything of that sort. One day they had a guest speaker, Mitchell Weiss. This guy was one of the founders of a robot company, U.S. Robots. He was a young guy, a good speaker, very passionate, and he really turned me on. That’s where it came from. I got really interested in doing this, and then I started reading about it.

When you go back to, I forget when it is, the early 1980s I think, there weren’t a lot of textbooks written. There were papers, but most of it was industrial robots and it was seat of the pants. It was proprietary. My department chairman said, “I want you to write a book on robotics.” He first wanted me to teach it, but I had to learn something to teach it. Then he said, “I want you to write a book on robotics.”

I decided to do that, so I got two colleagues and we put the book together after a long time. It’s difficult to work with people who don’t live up to their side of the bargain and that’s what happened. One of them was great, but the other one was not. The guy who held us back shall go nameless. It turned out the book was really the first comprehensive textbook in the area of robotics. It was called Robotics: An Integrated Approach. It didn’t sell a lot of copies. It’s not a big field, but people still use parts of it today. I know because I get royalties. The book is out of print, but when they Xerox it they still pay, so I get enough for a dinner.

Šabanović:

Who was the chairman who suggested you write it?

Klafter:

Oh, it was the former President of IEEE, Bruce Eisenstein.

Šabanović:

What was the integrated part of the integrated approach?

Klafter:

Good question. At this point I don’t think I can tell you. It was a catchy title, okay? I think that was more of it. We put a lot of stuff in, and people have asked to use it. We put a lot of problems that students could use in it and people used to call and say can they use the problems in work that they’re doing. It’s nice when people say they want to use your work. That was a fun thing to do and that’s how I got into the area or robotics.

A Career in Robotics

Šabanović:

Robotics was still a new field in a sense, so how did you go about coming up with a textbook for the field?

Klafter:

That’s a good question. We knew it had to have control, so I wrote the chapter on control. It had to have computer stuff in it, so one of the colleagues wrote the stuff on computers. Vision was starting to become important, so it had to have vision. The first chapter of the book was kind of a description of industrial robots, the classification of industrial robots, and stuff like that. I borrowed heavily from Joseph Engelberger’s book which was one of the influences. I was also influenced me by going to robot shows. Even though the shows were industry oriented it was really fascinating stuff. I truly enjoyed this, to me the field was fun, and if it isn’t fun, why do it?

Šabanović:

What were some of the robot shows you went to, and the kinds of things did you see?

Klafter:

They had the shows in Detroit or at Caldwell Hall. Terrible, I don’t remember the name of the show, but it was the big industrial robots show where all the manufacturers attended. At that time there were a lot of manufacturers in the United States and in Europe, and they would bring their robots, so the show was loaded with robots all doing amazing things. The other thing was it was colorful because they had to draw your attention. It was just marvelous to go there and I enjoyed it immensely. I went to some of the talks, but they weren’t as especially technical. They were interesting shows to attend, unlike the ICRA [IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation]. I’m not saying that the ICRA isn’t interesting, sorry. There was spunk at the robot shows. I mean it’s a different type of event, this is industrial, and they were, for the most part, industrial robots. They were interested in grippers and picking up lots of heavy things. It was a fun thing to attend and I’ve always enjoyed being associated with people in the robot field. It was good.

Šabanović:

What was the first actual robotic system that you worked on?

Klafter:

Actually, I consulted for U.S. Robots. They were having problems. I had an opportunity to really apply some of my diagnostic skills and I learned some interesting things about when you go and buy parts. They used, I don’t remember the name of the component, and most robot companies use the component. It’s not a gear, but it’s sort of like a gear. It was used, and probably still is used, by most of the industrial robot companies. They were having problems because there were vibration problems, so the robot with the arm would go, then it would shake in a certain sections, and it was repeatable. I instrumented up and I took a look at the current. We could see what was happening. The current was actually really going high and there was something going on.

It turned out that only one company in the United States, a German company, made this particular component. It was derived from garden implements and it was a way of multiplying torque. They adapted it for robots and when they put this thing in the robot they had problems. It turned out that the numerical control machine that was actually machining these gears was defective. For want of another name, I’ll call it a gear. They were producing defective components and nobody knew it. We finally called it to their attention and they had to change the machine to do it. It was a very interesting thing.

I learned a great deal about the practicality of engineering. Here I was professor of engineering, never having practiced engineering. After I did consulting, I realized, how can you call yourself an engineering professor when you don’t practice engineering? This gave me an opportunity to practice in the field of robots. I worked on robots and I consulted for a number of years.

Unfortunately, they went out of business, but not because of me. The field became very difficult, and it was, I think, a mini recession, or something like that. People weren’t buying robots, so companies couldn’t survive. Today, I don’t know, I think there are only a couple of industrial robot companies in the United States. In the United States it went from a very large number to only a few. Now they’re made in other countries.

Šabanović:

When did the mini recession happen?

Advances in Robotics and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society

Klafter:

In the late 1980s. It was a shame that that took place. The United States lost the edge that it had in robots. The other countries, of course, didn’t suffer as much. Today, it would probably be a different story, but the economic pressures in other countries are not the same as they are in the United States. The companies here got to make a profit, but if people don’t buy, they don’t make a profit. That’s what was happening. It was interesting that that took place, and sad. It was really sad because we did lose the edge, I feel.

The advances made in other parts of robotics have been amazing. Even though it’s more of an academic kind of organization, I think that the [IEEE] Robotics and Automation Society is in large part responsible for it. It still has contributed to the advancement of the field, greatly contributed. I like to think that, in part, I had something to do with that. Let’s see, I’m trying to think. I was involved with control, and I was thinking back trying to prepare a little bit for this, trying to find out how I got involved with the committee that formed the Robotics and Automation Society. Actually, at that time it was a Council. The first one was a Council, and that’s IEEE speak, so to speak.

Anyway, this forming committee got together a group of us, and one thing led to another, and over a period of some time, and all of a sudden we petitioned the IEEE to have a Council, the Robotics and Automation Council. We had this small group of people, and we found that there were lots of people out there who were interested in this. I was associated with the Robotics and Automation Council, and then the Robotics and Automation Society continuously until after I ended my presidency, which I found out was in 1995 [1994]. I couldn’t remember when it was. I still continue to do some work for the Robotics and Automation Society. It was a good long period and I saw the Society grow tremendously.

For me, being associated with Robotics and Automation Society was a highlight of my career. Not so much because of what we accomplished, that was important, but because of the people I worked with. The people in the Society were the greatest people I have ever, still to this day, ever met. They were unlike some groups that I was associated with. They were only interested in furthering the society and there wasn’t any I’m important, I’m important, there was none of that. The Society is the important thing. Whatever we do we have to do it to make the Society improve and succeed, and that’s the way it was. A good part of that came from the founding president, George Saridis. He was really a major force and his legacy persisted for the longest time. I don’t know whether it’s still that way, I suspect that it still is to a large part. Anytime you deal with people, you have some personalities involved, I didn’t find that there were personalities. It was wonderful dealing with the people and interacting with the people. I got a chance to meet people from all over the country and all over the world. As I said, being associated with the Society and finishing up as president was a highlight of my career. That was a marvelous experience.

Šabanović:

Who were some of the people that you worked with on the original Council?

Klafter:

They still exist today, they’re still around, including TJ Tarn, of course, George Saridis, and Dave Orin. I go back a long time. Richard (Dick) Volz has done a marvelous job with the Transactions. George Bekey really did a marvelous job on the Transactions. He was the one who really brought it up to a very high-level scholarly publication. Let’s see, who else? The problem is I don’t want to leave people’s names out. I’m just trying to think. There were a number of other people, but those are the ones who come to mind just now. I’ll probably think of them after I finish with you, and I’ll run back.

Šabanović:

You can always blame it on our editing.

Klafter:

This group is truly a rather unique group because of what has happened over the years. I haven’t kept up with the finances, but I was involved with the finances. I was treasurer for a while, then vice president for finance, and then president. We were very much interested in running a balanced budget. Funny thing is I talked to George Bekey today, he became president after I was president, and he said, “You left me with a deficit.” I had no idea. I didn’t realize that, so I apologized. We were trying to be fiscally responsible. This is a good group. It’s a good group of people. As I said, I think that the Society has truly furthered the cause of robotics in the world today.

Šabanović:

What are some of the ways that you think it’s done that?

Klafter:

The Transactions certainly was important. Then the development of the International Conference of Robotics and Automation (ICRA) brought a lot of people together who could present results before they were really in a form where they could be in a paper, not paper form. People could read this and build on that. I think the conference helped people go beyond what the Transactions would do. The Magazine was an interesting development. It wasn’t a magazine, it was an eight page, or a sixteen page paper thing with no glossies, no color, and pictures were black and white. It was really a newsletter. That’s what it was. Then we looked at some of the other Societies who had magazines, and there was method to our madness going over to a magazine.

The IEEE has some strange rules. When you pay your dues, part of your dues comes back to the Society. The percentage is based on the number of pages that you publish and things of that sort. Newsletters don’t count. Magazines do.

If we had a magazine, we could get more income from IEEE. Looking at the Magazine today it’s really slick, and a good part of that, the reason for that, is Roz Snyder. She remembers when it was a newsletter. She’s been very instrumental in proving things and that has helped the Society. I don’t know what the finances of the Society are, I wasn’t privy to that after I left, but I suspect if they can afford to bring the presidents back, and pay for us -- It’s a very nice thing to do and for me it’s great. Incidentally, that never would’ve happened under George Saridis and I think he’s turning over in his grave about this. I was in the hotel lobby checking in and all these people came by, people I knew very well, and it was great seeing them. I hope to see even more at the banquet tonight and the president’s dinner tomorrow. It’s a good organization.

When I was president, I got to go to the IEEE overall Technical Activities conference. It’s a meeting. It’s not a conference. When you are an IEEE Society president it’s a lot of drudgery, but you get to meet the other presidents. At that time, I think there was something like forty-five or fifty presidents, so I interacted with presidents from other Societies. They were some really good guys and lady. There weren't too many ladies who were president at that time, but I suspect that’s changed now. It was a good experience and I can say that TJ Tarn was very responsible for raising our understanding of how IEEE works with respect to money. Prior to TJ. I don’t think we had a good understanding of what you had to do to get your share of the pie. You really have to go in there and it doesn’t come automatically. You get some money, but you can get more if you really push, and he understood that. The thing about IEEE is there is no manual that tells you how to be a president. There may be one now, but in dealing with IEEE there’s certainly no manual. You just have to learn and it was a good experience there, too.

Šabanović:

Going back to the foundation of the RAS was there something about that moment in time or in history where it really felt like it was time for robotics to come together as a discipline? It’s a very kind of interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary pursuit.

Klafter:

Yes, it is, very interdisciplinary.

Šabanović:

Why did it come together?

Klafter:

I can't put my finger on it, but maybe it was time. As you point out, there were things that were pushing in that direction and I guess there were people who were farsighted enough to see that it was time that we had a robotics component of the IEEE. The good thing about IEEE is that they were open to establishing a new Society like this, and of course, the founding people were basically spin-offs from the Control Systems Society. Almost all of them belonged to the Control Systems Society. Everybody belonged to the Control Systems Society. We saw that there was this need because it was beginning to grow. People were starting to do a little research in the field. There of course was industrial robotics, and of course, the automation tag came in because of the industrial components. Of course, it has always been difficult with respect to the conference and the Transactions on robotics and automation. It was difficult to get papers written on automation because the people who might write those papers were industrial people and they don’t get paid to write papers, so it was a little difficult at times, but we tried to include that as much as possible.

Šabanović:

If everybody was part of the Control [Systems] Society and if you couldn’t get it done in the Control [Systems] Society, what did you feel a new group would help you accomplish?

Klafter:

That’s a good question and I don’t know the answer to it. I really don’t know the answer. No, I don’t. It’s a good question. It’s funny that I never gave it any thought because it’s an obvious question. Don’t know. Yeah, it could’ve easily been included as a technical activity within the Control Systems Society, for sure. I don’t know whether it would’ve gone as far, the whole field. I don’t know whether this would’ve burgeoned the way it did under the Robotics and Automation Society as a separate entity.

Šabanović:

Was there a sense amongst the people who came together to form robotics that they were already doing robotics prior to that and before they identified themselves as roboticists?

Klafter:

To some extent, sure, yes, people were doing this. I don’t know how much research was going on at the time. You know, it’s the 1980s. There wasn’t a great deal of research. There was research. The research, of course, came from the academic side, for the most part. Industry couldn’t afford to do a lot of research. Industry had to produce a product and make a profit. It was the industrial people who kind of pushed and then the academics got involved with the research aspect.

One of the questions I think you had earlier was what kind of projects did I work on. I got involved with mobile robots. I found these to be very interesting. I had a group of students working on mobile robot projects and, again, it was a fun thing to do. They enjoyed it tremendously. The problem was it was difficult to get funding at the time. Funding had kind of dried up, to some extent, and the mobile robots were not viewed at that time the way they are today. They were viewed more as a practical kind of thing, industrial, so it was difficult to go to NSF or DARPA and get funding from them. I got some funding, but not a lot.

Šabanović:

Did you get industry funding for your work?

Klafter:

That was a bad time to get funding from industry, right. It was difficult. See, the European people didn’t have that problem. The Japanese people certainly didn’t have that problem at the time. I was amazed when I went to Japan and I found that every faculty member got this amount of money from the government and this amount of money from industry, and it was almost automatic. They were able to have lots of students and big labs and they did great stuff. The Japanese have done wonderful stuff in the area of robotics in both the industrial as well as the nonindustrial types of robots and various types of assist devices. Unfortunately, in this country [the United States] we tend to be shortsighted, and it bothers me, but what are you going to do?

[Laughs] That’s the way it is and it’s hard to change the system. That’s the way it was.

Šabanović:

What were some of the industrial applications that mobile robots were being used for at the time?

Klafter:

I know one of them was in firefighting. They tried to adapt a mobile robot onboard ships to fight fires from aircraft carriers. Fires are a real problem when the planes crash. Men come out in these suits, they’ve got to put out fires, and it’s very dangerous, so they kind of envisioned having mobile robots do that. Of course, today, mobile robots are used to go into structures where there might be a bomb, sniff out bombs, and blow them up. Sacrifice the robot instead of the man. People also have used the mobile robots in research for artificial intelligence, trying to put learning into the mobile robot and path planning. Very important at the time, and probably still is important. It was an interesting area and I suspect it continues to be. I’m not as up on the field as I used to be. As I said, I’ve gone into another area, but every so often I still get the Transactions, I look at it, and I’m amazed at the things that go on. It’s interesting to see the developments in the field of mobile robots and robotics in general.

Šabanović:

What were some of the mobile robotics projects that you worked on?

Klafter:

Well, let’s see. One of them was a window-washing robot that climbed up the wall. I was involved with a company that did this, and we put it together. Unfortunately, the guy, the principal, the president, died suddenly under peculiar circumstances, so the company disappeared and nobody really picked this up. I wasn’t totally convinced that this was a viable application. You lowered this thing down like you would lower a man on a platform, but this thing came down the wall and carried the solution to wash the windows. It crawled down and had grippers. The problem is in our tall building you have these strong winds, so I worried about the thing breaking loose, smashing through a window, and people getting hurt. I raised the issue, but they didn’t want to hear about it. It never amounted to anything. So that was one project.

Šabanović:

What was the name of the company that was involved with it, if you remember?

Klafter:

Gosh, that’s terrible. I don’t remember. It’ll come back to me, but I don’t remember.

Šabanović:

If it does, you can just email us. We’re just curious to know those kinds of things. [Laughs.]

Klafter:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. One of the projects that my students worked on was something that could’ve been used in space. Basically, the robot had two connectors, one on each end. It was-- I’m looking around for the language. The language, as I said, sometimes escapes me. It was an articulated structure that could plug one end into a hole and then operate like a regular robot, move to another. There was a grid of these, and that’s how it moved around.

Šabanović:

I think I’ve seen this.

Klafter:

It’s possible. It’s possible, yeah. We worked on this and I had some good students. Unfortunately, [sighs] the students-- I don’t know whether they lost interest or they graduated, that was for sure, but the project stopped because I lost the students. I didn’t have the funding for them. I thought it was a pretty good idea and it could certainly have been used in a space application.

We actually built a small prototype and it kind of worked. I had to teach these kids all about control and how to use motors. That’s my strong area, motor control. Even though they were mechanical, they didn’t get that kind of thing in class. It was a cross-disciplinary group of mechanical and electrical engineers. I had to teach them these things and that was good. They learned. They appreciated it, too. Yes, we had it sort of working. [Laughs.]

Šabanović:

Who were some of your students who have had careers in robotics?

Klafter:

[Sighs.] I’m trying to think. Most of them did not continue in the field. They did not go on, which happens. I mean it does happen. I think the training they got was good for what they did. I haven’t kept up with many of my students, either. That’s a shame, but that happens sometimes. One of my students was the one who coauthored the book. He was really good.

Šabanović:

What’s his name?

Klafter:

Tom Chmielewski. It’s pronounced the way it’s spelled. [Laughs.] He’s really good. He was always an excellent student and I guess he was my best student. We got along very well and he held up his end of the bargain completely. Now basically I’ve told you the one who didn’t because if you look at the name there are three names. So by the process of elimination-- [Laughter.]

Šabanović:

Who are some of the other people you’ve collaborated with over the years in research and other things?

Klafter:

[Sighs.] Oh, boy. That one I didn’t expect. I’m sure it will come to me, but I cannot really remember. It’s terrible. It bothers me. It bothers me that that’s happening, but it happens.

Šabanović:

Maybe it might be easier to think of specific projects and who you worked with on a specific project. After the window washing machine, what were some other robots?

Klafter:

There was this rectangular array thing. That was a major one. I’m trying to think. [Laughter.] It’s difficult for me to remember. I’m sorry. I told you this might happen, and it is. I’m amazed that I’m able to dredge up as much as I have at this point.

TEMPLE UNIVERSITY

Šabanović:

What brought you to Temple after Drexel?

Klafter:

One of my former students, a very good student, was a faculty member at Temple, and they were trying to expand. They had what was called electrical engineering technology, and they were looking to expand engineering and develop a graduate program. I was strongly involved in graduate programs, so he asked me whether I wanted to come. I wasn’t all that happy at that point at Drexel and I was looking for a change. Seventeen years is a long time to be at one place. I went and it was a good time. I helped develop the graduate program. I think I made an impact there. We improved the curriculum, curriculum development. Temple is still not a major player, but we produced some very good students, excellent students. That was the reason I went to Temple. I should also say that the bump in salary didn’t hurt. [Laughs.] It wasn’t the major reason, but it didn’t hurt.

Šabanović:

What was the name of the student that was there?

Klafter:

Oh, it was Brian Butz.

Šabanović:

What year did you move?

Klafter:

Let’s see, I was there working back about 1986, 1987, 1988, something like that.

Šabanović:

Oh, so it was pretty early.

Klafter:

Oh, yeah, sure. Maybe 1984.

Biomedical Engineering, Teaching, and Funding

Šabanović:

The U Penn robotics wasn’t really up and running when you were at Drexel.

Klafter:

No, it wasn’t. It was a small group. They were more into biomedical engineering at Penn, and that was one of the things I did at Drexel. I was in the biomedical engineering department which was part of electrical engineering. I did some research in the area of cardiac pacemakers. Actually, I applied optimal control to the control of cardiac pacemakers, and I got funded by the NSF, so it was good.

Šabanović:

What were some of the other sources of funding that you had over the years?

Klafter:

NASA and--

Šabanović:

Did they fund the rectangular array?

Klafter:

No, they didn’t. It was kind of a general-- and let’s see.

I actually had limited funding. I didn’t have a great deal of funding, and I think to some extent, it was because I was very much interested in teaching. As you probably know, if you’re interested in teaching, it’s difficult to succeed academically. I think I succeeded academically and I think I graduated a lot of students. I taught them well and I think that they went out and did well, so I think I had an impact in the field.

I liked teaching and it was only the last three years that I decided it wasn’t going well. I really enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed working with students. I never envisioned myself retiring. I thought I would go forever. But, things change, and they changed, so it wasn’t fun anymore. If something isn’t fun, why do it? Go on to do something else, and that’s what I do now. I enjoy what I do.

Advice and the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society

Šabanović:

What’s your advice for young people that are interested in pursuing a career in robotics?

Klafter:

In robotics? [Sighs] Get yourself a good advisor and work hard. Work very hard. Get as much background as you possibly can even though it doesn’t appear that it’ll be relevant to what you’re doing. You don’t know that it won't be relevant in the future.

These are things that I learned and it is the thing that you learn as you get older. When you are a young person you have a very narrow view of what’s relevant and what isn’t, but no question about it, a broad background is important. Also, get involved with a group like the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. It’s important. You get to meet people, you get to exchange ideas, and that’s how you learn. It piques interest in a particular area that you hadn’t even considered, and that’s what’s really important. I think we’ve done that in this Society. There are a lot of young people and I’m pleased to see that there were so many young people. When I was president I tried to nurture the younger people and get them involved in the Society. You know, they weren't old, but they were the old-timers, who were associated with the Society, and I wanted to get younger people involved in the Society. I thought it was good for them to see how it was run and to make contributions to the Society. They bring another perspective, a younger perspective to it. We did do that.

Of course, the competitions run and sponsored by the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society is one way to get younger people involved. Now every high school kid, every elementary school kid, is interested in robots. They’re not exactly the robots that I would say are the kind of robots that I was involved with, but still it’s the interest in robots that is important. Hopefully, a small subset of those kids will go on and perhaps make contributions to the overall field of robotics and automation.

Šabanović:

What’s your advice to young teachers, professors, and future advisors?

Klafter:

[Laughs.] If you want to be successful and advance, you have to do a lot of research and work with students. That’s the joy. I can tell you, if you don’t work with students, you’re missing out on an important part of academics. It’s a fun thing to do. Students really get you going and that’s what it was for me. I just love working with students. You have to learn to play the game, the funding game, and write lots of proposals. It takes time, but it’s necessary. That’s the only way to do it, especially, if funding is scarce. You have to go out there and try different sources. It’s difficult. I don’t know what it’s like with NASA now. NASA used to be a major, major source of funds. Now that NASA has been cut way back, it probably doesn’t fund as much as it did.

Teaching at the university-level is a marvelous experience, and I would highly recommend it to anybody who feels that they can put up with some of the subsidiary kind of stuff that you have to put up with. This means administration and the chores that come along with being a faculty member. Going into the classroom and working on research projects with students more than makes up for it, absolutely more than makes up for it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt if you’re at a school where they nurture the faculty member. A school that lets the faculty member pretty much have a lot of autonomy in what they do. There are lots of schools that are like that, not all, but many. It can be a great source of pleasure. One thing, you know, if you’re working a job that you don’t like, you’re always tired. You can't wait for the day to end. I never felt that way. I’ve always enjoyed it, at least until the last three years. [Laughs.]

What is a Robot?

Šabanović:

If you had to define what a robot is, how would you define it?

Klafter:

I’m sorry, say again?

Šabanović:

What a robot is? What would you say a robot is?

Klafter:

It depends on the kind of robot. An industrial robot is there to help the human being do things that a human being couldn’t do because of strength limitations, danger, and things of that sort. So, an assist for human beings is certainly one definition.

Šabanović:

You were explaining robots. The definition of a robot is?

Klafter:

Definition. I wouldn’t give it a definition. There are book definitions of what a robot is, but I think the definition has changed.

Šabanović:

We’re just curious about how you would define it. Since you’ve done work in this area, how would you tell people about robots?

Klafter:

Where people are using robots or robotic-type device, they’re using robotic-type devices, which really aren't robots. They’re more telekinetic devices, which the laypeople think is a robot, but it really isn’t a robot. In the medical field some marvelous work is being done with robotic surgery, so again it comes back to helping the human being because it certainly does help the human being. Surgeons are able to do the kind of surgery they do now that they couldn’t ordinarily do without the use of these telekinetic devices.

Šabanović:

Basically, they are not a robot because they are not autonomous?

Klafter:

They’re not autonomous, exactly. Now, it’s going to be a long time before a robot does surgery on a human being without the surgeon there. [Laughter.] I think that would be-- I don’t know whether I would ever want that because I don’t know whether we could trust the robot. Things happen.

Let’s see. What other areas? Certainly helping people. The idea that mobile robots could go into a burning building and examine. They used mobile robots at Chernobyl to see what was going on. At Chernobyl to put a human being in there would be essentially sacrificing the human being. The robot is really something that can be used to help the human being to assist what the human being is able to do and to go beyond the capabilities of a human being.

I don’t know whether you would call that a definition, but for me that’s an important aspect of robots. I remember when I was first involved with industrial robots one of the things that they said was that robots could work in areas that human beings couldn’t work in because they were dangerous. They cited spray painting in automobile assembly. People would go in with their masks on and shields and everything, but still they got sick and they didn’t do the best job. A robot is immune to that kind of stuff and it can do a superior job to the human being. It puts down an even coat of paint, it’s just the right thickness, and it does a marvelous job on the automobile. You take a look at the finishes on automobiles today, and they’re really remarkable compared to what they used to be. I guess, if I had to put my finger on one thing, I would say the helping of human beings.

Šabanović:

Great. Is there anything we missed or anything you’d like to add?

Klafter:

I’m sure you missed, but add, no. I gave a little thought to this beforehand, but not a lot. I probably should’ve done more, but I felt it would be more spontaneous. This is certainly spontaneous. [Laughter.] I hope I don’t have a lot of “Uh... uh... uhs...” in it, but [laughter] it’s been a long time since I gave a talk of any kind. It has been a long time, but I’ve always enjoyed giving talks.

I would say that pretty much sums it up. You’ve asked good questions. They were really good questions. They pointed me in the right direction, so I appreciate that.

Šabanović:

Thank you. You told us a lot, especially about RAS, that we really did not know.

Klafter:

Oh, you didn’t know.

Šabanović:

That was really useful.

Klafter:

Oh, good, good. I’m glad I could help.

Šabanović:

Understanding the kind of camaraderie and its importance is really interesting.

Klafter:

Absolutely. Oh, the camaraderie. Camaraderie has been a big thing, and still to this day I suspect that it’s still the same, but I don’t know. Why would it change because you grow up in a culture, people come through the culture, and you adopt that culture as part of your own. I would think that camaraderie probably is to a large extent still the same. I really appreciate you giving me this time to speak about it.

Šabanović:

We appreciate you [laughs] taking the time. Thank you.

Klafter:

Good, good.