Manfred Morari was appointed head of the Department of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering at ETH Zurich in 2009. He was head of the Automatic Control Laboratory from 1994 to 2008. Before that he was the McCollum-Corcoran Professor of Chemical Engineering and Executive Officer for Control and Dynamical Systems at the California Institute of Technology. He obtained the diploma from ETH Zurich and the Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, both in chemical engineering. His interests are in hybrid systems and the control of biomedical systems. In recognition of his research contributions he received numerous awards, among them the Donald P. Eckman Award and the John R. Ragazzini Award of the Automatic Control Council, the Allan P. Colburn Award and the Professional Progress Award of the AIChE, the Curtis W. McGraw Research Award of the ASEE, Doctor Honoris Causa from Babes-Bolyai University, Fellow of IEEE and IFAC, the IEEE Control Systems Field Award, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (U.S.). Manfred Morari has held appointments with Exxon and ICI plc and serves on the technical advisory boards of several major corporations.
Usually when you are nominated for an award you know about it or – at least – you have a suspicion – for example, when somebody asks you for your CV, but you are sure that they are not interested in hiring you. This award came to me as a total surprise. Indeed I had written a letter of support for another most worthy candidate. So, when I received Tamer Başar’s email I thought that it was to inform me that this colleague had won. Who was actually responsible for my nomination? Several of my former graduate students! So, not only were they responsible for doing the work that qualified me for the award, they were even responsible for my getting it!
Over the course of my career I was fortunate to have worked with a fantastic group of people and I am very proud of them: 64 Phd Students to date and about 25 postdocs. 27 of them are holding professorships all over the world – from the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology KAIST in the East to Berkeley and Santa Barbara in the West from the Norwegian Technical University and the U Toronto in the North to the Technion in Israel and the Instituto Tecnologico de Buenos Aires in the South. Many others are now in industry, about 15 in Finance, Management Consulting and Legal, holding positions of major responsibility. I regard this group of former co-workers as my most important legacy.
This award means a lot to me because of the awe-inspiring people who received it in the past. I remember Hendrik Bode receiving the inaugural award in 1979. I remember Rutherford Aris, one of my PhD advisors at the University of Minnesota receiving it in 1992. Aris had actually worked and published with Richard Bellman. I remember Harmon Ray receiving it in 2000, my colleague and mentor at the University of Wisconsin.
Receiving this award made me also reflect on what I felt our major contributions were in these 34 years since I started my career as an Asst. Prof at Wisconsin. In what way was our work important? I was reminded of a dinner conversation a few months back with a group of my former PhD students who had joined McKinsey after graduating from ETH. One of them told me that our group had supplied more young consultants to McKinsey Switzerland than any other institute of any university in Switzerland. He also talked informally about the results of a survey done internally on what may be the main traits characterizing a CEO. It is not charm. It is not tactfulness and sensitivity. It is not intelligence. The only common trait seems to be that in their past these CEOs headed a division that experienced unusual growth. For example, the CEO of a telecom company had headed the mobile phone division. All the CEOs seemed to have been at the right place at the right time.
Similar considerations may apply to doing research and to heading a research group. Richard Hamming, best known for the Hamming code and the Hamming window, wrote in a wonderful essay: “If you are to do important work then you must work on the right problem at the right time and in the right way. Without any one of the three, you may do good work but you will almost certainly miss real greatness….”
So, what are the right problems? Eric Sevareid, the famous CBS journalist once quipped: “The chief cause of problems is solutions.” We were never interested in working on problems solely for their mathematical beauty. We always wanted to solve real practical problems with potential impact. Several times we were lucky to be standing at a turning point, ready to embark on a new line of research before the community at large had recognized it. Let me share with you three examples.
Around 1975, when I started my PhD at the University of Minnesota, interest in process control was just about at an all-time low. In 1979 this conference, which was then called the Joint Automatic Control Conference, had barely 300 attendees. The benefits of optimal control and the state space approach had been hyped so much for more than a decade that disillusionment was unavoidable. Many people advised me not to commence a thesis in process control. But my advisor George Stephanopoulos convinced me that the reason for all the disappointment was that people had been working on the wrong problem. The problem was not how to design controllers for poorly designed system but how to design systems such that they are easy to control. The work that was started at that time by us and several other groups provided valuable insights that are in common use today and set off a whole research movement with special sessions, special journal issues and even separate workshops and conferences.
The second example is our work on Internal Model Control (IMC) and Robust Control. In the early 1980s the term “robust control” did not exist or, at least, it was not widely used and accepted. From our application work and influenced by several senior members of our community we had become convinced that model uncertainty is a critical obstacle affecting controller design. We discovered singular values and the condition number as important indicators before we learned that these were established mathematical quantities with established names. In 1982 at a workshop in Interlaken I met John Doyle, Gunter Stein and essentially everybody else who started to push the robust control agenda. Indeed it was there that Jürgen Ackerman made the researchers in the West aware of the results of Kharitonov. A year later I went to Caltech, John Doyle followed soon afterwards and an exciting research collaboration commenced that lasted for almost a decade. We also cofounded the Control and Dynamical Systems option/department at that time.
The third example is our more recent work on Model Predictive Control (MPC) and Hybrid Systems. As I returned to Switzerland 17 years ago, I moved from a chemical to an electrical engineering department. I was thrown into a new world of systems with time constants of micro- or even nanoseconds rather than the minutes or hours that I was used to. So we set out to dispel the myth that MPC was only suited to slow process control problems and showed that it could even be applied to switched power electronics systems. Through this activity in parallel with a couple of other groups in the world, among them the group of Graham Goodwin, we started this era of “fast MPC” and contributed to the spread of MPC to just about every control application area.
I would never claim that in the mentioned areas we made the most significant contributions and some of the results may even seem trivial to you now, but we were there at the beginning. The Hungarian author Arthur Koestler remarked that “the more original a discovery, the more obvious it seems afterwards”
Not withstanding this over-the-hill award that I received today and the mandatory retirement age in Switzerland I fully intend to strive to match these contributions in the coming years – together with my students, of course.
I want to close my remarks quoting from an interview Woody Allen gave last year. When he was asked “How do you feel about the aging process?” he replied: “Well, I’m against it. I think it has nothing to recommend it.”