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Contextual Robotics Forum 2015: the Future of Robotics

San Diego, CA, December 7, 2015 -- Robotics leaders from industry, academia and the public sector met at the University of California, San Diego to discuss the future of robotics at the second annual Contextual Robotics Forum on Oct. 30, 2015 at the University of California, San Diego. 

At the Forum, the deans of the Jacobs School of Engineering and Division of Social Sciences at UC San Diego announced the launch of the Contextual Robotics Institute. The Institute will conduct leading-edge research combining a variety of disciplines; partner with industry to translate discoveries into products for the global good; and work to establish San Diego as a key hub for the next generation of safe and useful robotics technologies that make decisions and take action based on their understanding of the world around them.

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Contextual Rototics Forum at UC San Diego's Atkinson Hall (Qualcomm Institute) Photo: Erik Jepsen / UC San Diego  (View more photos from the Forum on Flickr)

“We’re looking for this partnership between engineering and the social sciences to enhance quality of life, improve health care, increase safety and protect life,” said Albert P. Pisano, Dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.

“A better robot will not just do things better, but will be helpful to humanity,” said Carol Padden, Dean of the Division of Social Sciences at UC San Diego.

The “secret sauce” that sets this robotics institute apart is both that the researchers will be looking at robotics up close and personal with people and that collaboration is built into the institute from the start. “We are in deep partnership with the people who understand how humans learn. And that’s social scientists and in particular, cognitive scientists,” said Pisano who will give a keynote talk focused on UC San Diego’s role in building a robotics hub in San Diego at the RoboUniverse San Diego conference on December 16, 2015.

Through the Institute, explained Padden, social scientists, engineers and computer scientists will collaborate to develop contextual machines capable of interacting safely and naturally with humans and responding to the environment in ways similar to biological creatures. “We could have called this an institute of robotics. But we made a point of calling it contextual robotics,” said Padden.

The Jacobs School recently hired four faculty members in the robotics field and is planning to hire three more in the current recruitment cycle. The school is also working to hire a faculty director for the Contextual Robotics Institute. These new faculty will augment the more than 40 UC San Diego professors and research scientists from engineering, computer science, cognitive science and other social sciences who joined the Contextual Robotics Institute at its launch. The researchers and their teams will perform approximately $10 million in robotics-related research annually over the next 4-5 years.

The multi-disciplinary nature of robotics research at UC San Diego is valuable to address key questions about the next generation of autonomous systems, said Tom Pieronek, Vice President of Basic Research at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. Some of these questions include how researchers can push the cognitive load from human operators to robotic systems and how to ensure that these systems can derive from context the most relevant information to perform their tasks.

“Northrop Grumman is dedicated to be at the forefront of autonomy, and the vision that UC San Diego has here in the Contextual Robotics Institute works well with our collaborative partnering,” Pieronek said during his remarks at the Forum.

Qualcomm Technologies CTO Matt Grob described how the next generation of robots could be integrated into various aspects of human life. Society in the future could include, for example, robots that walk dogs, take inventory in company warehouses, scan farm fields to monitor the application of fertilizers and pesticides, save victims from burning buildings and drive people around safely.

“Robotics is in a state of revolution,” said Grob. Some of these technologies, he noted, are no longer the future. They are already of the past and present.  

For example, researchers in the lab of UC San Diego electrical engineering professor Mohan Trivedi are developing intelligent and autonomous automobile systems to enable safe, stress-free and efficient driving. These highly sensorized cars are programmed to continuously monitor the driver’s movements and gaze, and then use this information to predict what the driver intends to do, as well as when it’s appropriate to merge, change lanes, accelerate and decelerate. Trivedi announced that intelligent assistance features built in his lab will be installed in the Audi A8 in 2017.

Developing robotics to understand and work with people

Trivedi acknowledged that not everyone will be comfortable with leaving the driving up to a machine. He noted that Institute researchers are interested in teaching robotic systems to understand human behavior to increase the overall synergy between robots and humans.

“We want [humans and robots] to live in the same space,” said Trivedi.

Building robots that can better interact with humans involves taking cues from the brain, which is “the ultimate cognitive engineer,” said Andrea Chiba in her talk at the Forum. Chiba is a cognitive science professor at UC San Diego who works with UC San Diego bioengineering professor Todd Coleman on a robot rodent called iRat. The robot interacts with live rodents to better understand social interactions.

“Doing basic science where we’re using robots to better understand sociality and what’s important for sociality can lead us to a point where we can have humans interacting with machines effectively to accomplish goals and to be more productive,” said Coleman at the Forum. An example of such human-robot interaction includes assistive robots helping humans with disabilities, he added.

UC San Diego engineers, computer scientists and cognitive scientists also got an opportunity to show off their work at the event’s technology showcase, which was packed with people from industry, academia and the public sector. The robots on exhibit ranged from RUBI, a robot designed to play with and teach preschool children, to nanorobots from the laboratory of NanoEngineering professor and chair Joseph Wang.

In addition to UC San Diego researchers, the forum included a lineup of some of the most prominent leaders working in robotics industries today.

Marc Raibert, President of Boston Dynamics, talked about creating robots that mimic the way humans and people move. These dynamic robots aren’t just robots that do what we tell them to do; they also take cues and commands from their physical world. “I’m interested in making robots that have the functionality levels that we see in people and animals. That means things like mobility, dexterity and perception of the world around them,” Raibert said. He showed videos of the company’s iconic ATLAS and BigDog robots in action in rugged outdoor terrain.

Robots that augment human capabilities

Rob High, Vice President and CTO of Watson Solutions, IBM Software Group, leads teams that are developing cognitive systems able to learn and evolve thinking abilities as they encounter more complex problems. “It is our intention to use these cognitive systems for the purposes of augmenting human cognition,” he said.  This approach involves deep learning algorithms that analyze and understand text and other data and make predictions about how to handle and interpret the information.

A vision for the future of healthcare includes robots that augment the capabilities of doctors and surgeons. Jonathan Sorger, Senior Director of Medical Research at Intuitive Surgical and a Jacobs School bioengineering alumnus, described how advanced surgical robotic systems could “help surgeons see things they shouldn’t cut.” Intuitive Surgical is building robots for minimally invasive procedures that the company says are considerably safer than open surgeries. Such robots are adroit in suturing delicate tissues in the body, for example, and employ computer vision to enable surgeons to visualize areas they wouldn’t normally see with their own eyes, such as nerves and small tumors.

Yulun Wang, Chairman and CEO of InTouch Health, furthered the discussion on the role of robotics in the future of healthcare. Wang explained how a telehealth system, enabled by robots and other technologies, could deliver better healthcare compared to traditional in-person visits in terms of convenience, cost, access to appropriate clinical experts, time and improved diagnostic accuracy. The InTouch Telehealth Network cloud, he noted, allows doctors to remotely connect to patients in hospitals miles away and assess their conditions through robots equipped with cameras.

Meanwhile, Santa Clara-based Savioke is creating autonomous service robots that hotels can use to quickly deliver items — such as toothbrushes, chargers, snacks and bottled water — straight from the lobby to guests that request them. Savioke CEO Steve Cousins said that the service robots reduce the wait time for deliveries and, better yet, guests enjoy interacting with them. Cousins is also looking to the future.

“I think robots helping people is an enormous opportunity,” said Cousins.

Todd Hylton, the Executive Vice President of Brain Corporation pointed out that there are still various technical and business hurdles to overcome before “everyday robots” can become part of our everyday lives. Hylton explained that it is relatively easy to give computers adult-level performance and intelligence for performing various tasks, but it’s very difficult to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to understanding the environment. Machine learning, software, hardware and operating systems, among others, will all need to improve.

These are some of the issues that researchers associated with the Contextual Robotics Institute will be focused on.

Speaking about robotics from an entrepreneurial perspective was entrepreneur Paolo Pirjanian, the former CTO of iRobot. Pirjanian led the development of technologies such as NorthStar, the world’s lowest cost navigation system, and Mint, an intelligent square-shaped floor-cleaning robot that can map the room, plan out the areas for cleaning and detect any spots not cleaned during the first pass. He offered the following advice to startup companies in robotics: “Don’t let third parties control your destiny. You’ve got to control your own destiny,” stressing that no one will be as dedicated to your product as you will ever be.

Learn more about the Contextual Robotics Institute at UC San Diego.

Stay up to date with the latest robotics news at UC San Diego here.

Contextual Robotics Institute brochure PDF.

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