Aug. 19, 2011

Robotics Rocks!

by April Garbuz

Click to enlarge images

By April Garbuz, Wilton High School

Love R2-D2? Have you ever wanted to create your own robot? I spoke with Maja Matarić about her exciting work designing robots with the ability to help people, especially those with special needs. Here she gives us the inside scoop about robotics. Talk about a dream job!

How did you become interested in designing robot minds and behaviors?

Maja and a robot. Photograph by Phil Channing

When I was in college, at the University of Kansas, I was interested in psychology and computer science, and those two areas came together in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). But AI back then was very formal (lots of logic, not enough action), so I shifted my interest to robotics instead. Then, when I went to graduate school at MIT, I found that the research group I was most interested in was in robotics -- and a very cutting-edge new-type of robotics -- so I joined that group. The rest is history!

Are there many similarities between how robot minds and human minds function?

Indeed there are. We don't yet know quite how the human mind functions, but research in neuroscience is making new discoveries all the time, and work in computer science and even robotics is actually helping us to model and better understand the human brain. In the meantime, engineers are creating robots that are inspired by how people behave and, in some cases, by how people think, based on what we know about that so far. But most robots use very different hardware (integrated processors, and typically a single processor for making most decisions) compared to the "wetware" of neurons of the human brain. Robots' software may operate differently than how the human brain works. The important thing in robotics is not that robots think (or for that matter even look) like people do, but that they can do what they need to do, including effectively interact with people and help people. Since that's hard to achieve, we look to how people solve problems and do things, and are inspired by that in programming robots. Being inspired, however, is not the same as trying to model exactly what happens in biology.

What is the most exciting project you have worked on?

My most exciting projects are in socially assistive robotics, the new field my lab started that focuses on robots that help people through social interaction rather than through physical work. I have seen our robots make children with autism smile, stroke patients enjoy rehabilitation exercises, and elderly Alzheimer's patients improve their memory. Seeing our robots help people and improve their quality of life is very exciting!

How do you want your robots to operate ?

We want robots to clearly be robots and to provide the help that a person needs as companions, coaches, and buddies. We find that even simple robots that do not look like any biological creature can be very effective at helping people and are very engaging to people. What matters to us is that robots that are effective and engaging.

Do you have an ultimate research goal?

Yes, my ultimate research goal is for the work in my lab to end up in people's homes, helping people with special needs, well within my lifetime.

Any advice for someone interested in pursuing robotics?

Robotics is a very broad field, and it covers a huge number of research areas -- from robotics for health and medicine (which range from my socially assistive ones, to hands-on rehabilitation robots to surgical robots to nano robots that will be some day go into human bodies), to robotics for service (robotic cars, robotic tele-presence devices for work and home, robotic guards, robotic window washers, robotic wheelchairs, etc.), to manufacturing robotics (making everything from cars to gene sequences), to robot teams (ranging from nano ones to macro ones, under water, in space, etc.), to robots that crawl (robot-snakes), that shape-shift (self-reconfiguring), that fly (autonomous air vehicles) and many many many more.

So you don't have to decide early. Before college, take some summer courses or get involved in an after-school club in robotics. If you can, go visit a university lab that works in robotics and volunteer to help (for free!). At the university, choose computer science if you are interested in creating robot minds, or mechanical engineering or electrical engineering if you are interested in creating robot bodies. But don't be discouraged if math is not your favorite class; not all areas of robotics require lots of math. Just try various things, explore, and follow what you find interesting, don't let anybody discourage you!


April Garbuz is a TalkingScience summer intern and a junior at Wilton High School. She loves science, debating, acting, and swimming. Ultimately, she'd like to be a research scientist.


About April Garbuz

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Science Friday® and SciFri® are registered service marks of Science Friday, Inc. Site design by Pentagram; engineering by Mediapolis.