Mike Stilman, 1981-2014
If you have any memories of Mike to share,
please email them to rememberingmike at golems.org

There's a bunch of great stuff I could say about Mike, but the thing that keeps coming to mind this week is how much faith he put in me during the first year of grad school. I didn't come to Georgia Tech with any robotics or CS background, and would likely have foundered were if not for his incredible, paternal patience in coaching me through some cringeworthy basics in computer science. For one example, I remember him standing over my shoulder late at night as I worked on an implementation of an A* planner for his class, after the deadline, as he explained the difference between the stack and the heap. I can't imagine any other professor I've ever met being as committed to the development of a new student that had yet to prove themselves in any way. Whether it was kindness or idealism I don't care, because to me it said one thing: he believed in me. For that I will be forever grateful. RIP, Mike.
Jon Scholz

Golem Krang had his first appearance on TV scheduled on November 2010 and Mike was beyond excited. He had been campaigning to get the coverage for a while and had finally gotten it. The day before the video shoot, most of his students were gathered in Krang's Lab working on the demo, which consisted of the robot rolling around, waving its arms, picking up a chair...you know, the sort of things a normal 200-pound robot does when nobody is looking.

The CNN folks were supposed to come on Friday, November 12th, 2010 at 10:00 am to get the video footage. By 3:00 am – seven hours before hour zero – we were all tired but things seemed well under control...until something unexpected happened.

We were doing the last tests to check that everything was going smoothly. I was perched on top of a cabinet, Martin was sitting near Golem Krang (controlling him with a gamepad), Tobias was humming Ode an die Freude while working in his laptop, while our wheeled friend was balancing peacefully back and forth, back and forth, securely fastened with a rope to the ceiling. Harish and Kasemsit were also around.

Then, for some unknown reason, in the blink of an eye, Golem Krang went full speed towards the wall and crashed, making a horrible, loud CRACK!!!

I screamed – as I usually do – and everybody rose from their seats. Initially we were not really upset because we have seen Golem Krang crashing many times before. However, when we heard Martin mutter softly: "Oh s***, oh s***" we realized that something was really wrong...so we all gathered around Golem Krang for a better look. He was lying motionless on the floor, his fourth upper limb separated from the third one and hanging grotesquely out of place.

Our horror was out of limits for about five seconds; then, as the adults we were, we tried to figure out what the hell had happened. The first was Tobias, who quickly declared: "I was NOT involved in this".

Martin realized that only the bracket was broken, but anyway that was very bad news to have seven hours before a demo. After a quick poll it was decided that Martin and I would go and tell Mike that we had screwed up the apple of his eye. He was at his office talking with Jon. As he saw our ashen faces he understood something was very wrong. In pure Mike's style:

Mike (big smile): Don't tell me you broke the arm?
Me: Yes
Mike (in awe): HOLY MOTHER OF...

And, just as you would expect of Mike, he neither got mad, nor got angry; or at least he did not show it. Instead, he went straight to the core of the problem: He declared that we had seven hours to replace whatever had to be replaced and make it work again. Don't ask how, it had to be done. Period.

And, if you know Mike, you will not be surprised to know that yes, the demo took place, with the robot fully functional. In seven hours.

After talking with other people – who knew Mike longer than I have – they all seem to agree that this was a very special quality of his. He always found a solution for everything. And what is more, he made you believe that you could also do it. He did not waste time wondering about all the possible things that could go wrong. He was always optimistic and would work for what he wanted to achieve. Like a dog. And he expected the same of those who worked with him.

For that, I will always remember him. Oh, and for not kicking me and Martin out of his office or screaming at us (as we deserved).

Extra details from my notes:

The video shoot included some robot teleoperation. In order to make it look more visual-appealing for the audience, Mike wanted Neil to put a body suit on his upper body (the kind kids wear for Halloween or Comic Con if they are featuring a Medieval warrior). After Neil's logical reaction: "That is ridiculous. There is NO way I am wearing that." Mike's reply was priceless:

"What is really not nice is your wearing those bandages around and not the suit...TIME TO LOOK COOL MAN!"

If you know Mike, you know what happened. Neil ended up wearing the ridiculous body suit (I don't know of anybody else who could have convinced him to wear that). I think I have a video of Mike actually helping Neil put that thing on.

By November 2010 I was still having trouble calling Mike by his given name (in my notes I still refer to him as "Doc" here and there). He refused to be called Professor, did not like Doctor Stilman, suggested me to call him Doc, and after a lot of patience of his part, succeeded in making me call him Mike after many trial weeks.

Ana Huamán
Reflecting upon Mike's passing, I came across a few videos of a Golem demo he did for me back in 2011. These videos made me smile because they show the fun and daring Mike, which was typical of our interactions. I put these videos in a youtube playlist.
Chad Jenkins
I still remember the first day I met Mike: It was at James Kuffner's lab group meeting in my first year of grad school where everyone was introducing their research. I remember most people prepared slides but Mike came in and just started writing Jacobians on the board. It took me a few years to understand what he was talking about. I looked up to Mike ever since that day.
Dmitry Berenson

I am going to miss Mike always and dearly. He was a true mentor and friend, and he showed me the power of combining passion with hard work. He will forever be my role model and inspiration. When I was new and isolated at Georgia Tech, he placed his trust on me and let me explore the wonderful world of robotics for which I will be ever grateful.

When I was going through some challenging times, he went running with me in the middle of the night around Gatech, and all along he was encouraging me and motivating me. I still remember the introduction he gave to Master's students about his class, RIP and how passionate he was about teaching. He once told me that to be a great teacher you must have been a bad student. He was a big Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fan, like me, and was one of the first people ever to build a website for it.

Venkata Subramanian Mahalingam

I have so many wonderful memories of Mike, especially from the time we spent together preparing materials for the Humanoids conference. Mike was one of a kind; he was talented in so many ways – not only as a roboticist and teacher but also as an artist. There are simply no words to appropriately summarize who Mike was to so many people. Since I learned of his passing, an A.E. Housman poem has continued to go through my mind:

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
Josie Giles

I met Mike during his first visit to Georgia Tech as a faculty candidate. In the obligatory title slide, he proudly displayed his email address at the time, robot at cmu. This immediately drew the question: "is that your real email address?" "Yes", he said, "I initially wanted mike at cmu, but I was told that some robot took it, and I thought it was only fair that I take the robot's handle in return." Some years later, I left Mike's group for CMU and discovered that CMU email addresses expire a certain time after the owner graduates. Of courses, I immediately checked for robot at cmu, and upon seeing that it was available, snatched it. He thought this was hilarious and suggested that we now belong in a secret society where robt at cmu will live on through the ages, passed from generation to generation. Over the years, we have "crossed wires" frequently and I became Mike's dutiful mail forwarder. I kept hoping that one day, I'll get something juicy, like a letter from an ex-girlfriend – but alas, nothing.

The email address was not the only thing Mike passed on to me. Mike got me interested in humanoid robots and encouraged me to expand my horizons. At CMU, I worked with Chris Atkeson, his former thesis advisor, which made Mike my academic sibling as well as my former academic parent. Chris, Mike, and I always joked that our complicated family tree will take years of therapy to sort out. Even the little things, like using "\noindent" to remove superfluous first paragraph indentations, remind me of Mike’s tremendous influence in my life. Of all things that we shared, it was our friendship that I value the most.

Jiuguang Wang

Mike was a great bridge builder... bridges between people, departments, and disciplines. We're gonna miss Mike and his bridges.

Wayne Book

Mike Stilman, you will truly be missed. I met him for the very first time in shooting the movie Atlanta Heat 2 where he played the role of Mario. I had so much fun, and we laughed so hard when we had to do our scenes together. He was such a light and joy to be around, not to mention how very intelligent he was. But one thing for sure, he always talked about his beautiful wife, Akiko, and how she means the world to him and how cool it is to work on the same project with her. I will miss you so much, and we love you dearly. You have brought so many smiles to one's lives...Thank you for being an inspiration to me and others. R.I.P Mike!! ... Love,

Jarneen Brown

I never knew him, but I was the one who found him, called 911, and stayed until EMS arrived, etc. It has been a long month and I think about Mike every day, unable to erase the picture of him from my mind, and deeply saddened by a full life cut so short. But I sincerely appreciate being able to learn some about him and the influence that he had in the lives of colleagues, students, and friends. I feel some sort of a bizarre closeness to him, having seen and touched him literally seconds after his death. He sounds like he was a wonderful person, and I am deeply sorry for the loss that you all have suffered.

Anna Hull

Like many other students, I met Mike during the RIP class as part of my first semester as a masters student at Georgia Tech. Mike was like no other professor during that semester. He was genuinely super excited about Robotics, planning, algorithms and all technical topics. Mike had a special knowledge and care for the history of the field and always kept us on our feet about the names of the relevant figures. What was even better was his ability to tie up concepts from different fields and explain how they were re-used or adapted for completely new applications.

Mike was genuinely a caring individual who was open to all students as long as you wanted to learn and put in the effort. I'd never forget how excited he was when I showed him a planning demo once and how he wanted to post it in his Vimeo account ASAP. Or when he unexpectedly called me on my cell phone to give me tips right before Google and Apple interviews.

I will personally think about his enthusiasm and passion about robotics as I encounter obstacles in my professional career. Mike will be greatly missed.

Juan Garcia

I remember Mike's huge and beautiful smile... I always looked forward to meeting Mike when I visited Georgia Tech. Mike was always so kind and friendly. And he was so clear and enthusiastic about his very impressive work... I am thankful for all our encounters. I think of Mike many times... RIP.

Manuela Veloso