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Saul Amarel

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Biography

Saul Amarel was a computer scientist who advanced the field of artificial intelligence.

Amarel was born in Salonika, Greece, in 1928. He served in the Greek Resistance during World War II, gaining early experience in wireless communication and sabotaging enemy telephone lines. He led his family through Nazi-held territory to what would become Israel, and he graduated from the Israel Institute of Technology in 1948. After fighting in Israel’s war of independence and helping to design remote-control guided missiles for the Israeli navy, he attended Columbia University, earning an M.A. and a doctorate in engineering science.

Amarel worked at the RCA Laboratories, organizing the Computer Theory Group and leading it from 1958 to 1969. Then, he joined Rutgers University, becoming the Professor and Chairman of the Department of Computer Science. In addition to leading this new department, he organized the Rutgers Research Resource on Computers in Biomedicine in 1971 and the Laboratory for Computer Science Research in 1977.

Amarel became well-known for a 1968 paper that described a geometric isomorph of the so-called Missionaries and Cannibals problem. That riddle, often posed by mathematicians, asked how three missionaries could transport three cannibals across a river if their boat could only seat two people and they could not let any of their party be outnumbered (and eaten). Amarel’s goal was not to solve the problem, but to train a computer to do so without relying only on a mechanical calculation. He asked whether a computer could figure out the riddle using forms of reasoning similar to human logic.

He was also interested in applying artificial intelligence to medicine. He sought to build a machine that could diagnose illness and perhaps even customize drugs.

In the 1980s, he took leave from Rutgers to direct the multi-institutional Hypercomputing and Design project under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the national HPCC Initiative. Amarel looked at the ways that computers could be involved in the design of large engineering systems.

He won the ACM-AAAI Allen Newell Award in 1998 and was a Life Fellow at the IEEE.