An Extraordinary Technion Student Interns at the Jacobs Institute

Tobias (Tobi) Weinberg was among the nine talented young Technion students interning at the Joan & Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island this past summer. Already a top student at the Technion, where he is entering his senior year, he quickly distinguished himself at the Jacobs Institute, working with Professor Wendy Ju on human-robotic interaction.

“Tobi stood out because he whipped through tasks very quickly, and so was able to start grappling with some of the open-ended research problems the Ph.D. researchers were working on,” said Prof. Ju. Interns come into the lab for short stints to assist with the research and get a feel for what research is about, she explained. They are usually given short, well-contained tasks with extra time to finish, on the assumption they’re learning as they go.

Given a project that was expected to take a week or two, in a day he’d say, ‘I’m done. What’s next?’” recalled Prof. Ju on September 7, 2022 at an event on Roosevelt Island with the summer interns. “We’ve had talented students before, but this has been a little bananas,” said Prof. Ju.

Weinberg had come to the summer program with thoughts of applying to the Jacobs Institute for a master’s program but was encouraged instead to apply directly to the Ph.D. program. “Interns sometimes find it frustrating to discover that the Ph.D.s and professors don’t have the answers to research problems we’re taking on,” said Prof. Ju. “But Tobi found it exciting and exhilarating, which to my mind is the thing that recommends him for the Ph.D. program.”

Weinberg’s accomplishments are perhaps all the more remarkable considering he suffers from a rare genetic disorder in which the body’s inability to process copper affects the area of the brain that controls speech. Stricken with Wilson’s disease at 15, “I couldn’t speak or move from one month to the next. Now I’m one thousand times better, but it’s been a long way,” he communicated in person through his smartphone as he is still unable to speak.

Born in Argentina, Weinberg displayed innate engineering talent from the age of two when he disassembled his first computer. He moved to Israel in 2019 without his parents to attend the Technion, which he saw as “the MIT of the Middle East.” There, he is a member of the rocketry club and made the Dean’s List with honors during Spring 2020/21. Weinberg is a mechanical engineering student but works closely with the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering in the UAV Center and as a simulations and control engineer on Project JERICCO — a mission to launch and operate the first ever student-designed nanosatellite in lunar orbit.

He was drawn to Prof. Ju’s Future Automation Research Laboratory (FAR) in part because he is interested in autonomous driving, one of Prof. Ju’s specialties, and because of the lab’s variety of projects. One was building a robot that helps people do creative tasks like drawing or throwing pottery. Because of the human-robot collaboration it requires, that type of robot is more difficult to build than a machine that does the task by itself. Weinberg helped design the drawing robot. He also worked on making a remote-controlled trash barrel robot operate autonomously.

Asking Weinberg if he has a dream project is like asking a child his favorite candy. “I have so many,” he said. Currently, people who are unable to talk due to Wilson’s disease, ALS, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or other conditions use a keyboard predictor. “They do a great job,” but don’t go far enough, Weinberg said of the machines. “I want to create a brain interface that types what I think.”

Weinberg is still figuring out his career path. In the meantime, his experience at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute was ideal. “Waking up each day with a new challenge of something that needs to be built or developed is what drives me in life. And since I came here,” he said in September, “I found that something I was looking for. The sky is not the limit when it comes to turning ideas into reality to change the world.”