Robotics initiative gets University support

The Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative aims to explore the intersection between robotic technologies and society. New support from Brown University will help spur innovative interdisciplinary research.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A faculty initiative aimed at investigating the societal challenges and opportunities presented by robotics is getting a boost from Brown University.

The Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI) was begun about three years ago by a group of faculty who wanted to bring a wide variety of academic perspectives to bear on the field of robotics. The new commitment from the University will enable the group, which is co-led by professors Michael Littman and Bertram Malle, to hire an associate director and postdoctoral researcher, support conferences and symposia, and provide seed funds for new robotics research.

“We want robots to be of benefit to people,” said Littman, professor of computer science. “That involves not only understanding the technology, but also understanding people better and understanding what needs in society exist that robots can address. That’s going to require input from many academic fields — psychology, economics, sociology, medical science, as well as computer science and engineering.”

Two campus symposia sponsored by HCRI have each drawn more than 60 faculty members from over 20 units at Brown, encouraging an unusually wide range of fields to engage with questions in robotics. The new University support aims to nurture that interest and spur new research collaborations.

“The approach is distinctively Brown,” said Provost Richard M. Locke. “This is about addressing big problems in the world by bringing together people with diverse perspectives. That’s something Brown does particularly well, and it’s what will set HCRI apart from robotics programs elsewhere.”

Mapping the future of robotics

Robots have for decades toiled away on factory floors and roved across distant planets. But with the possible exception of a robotic vacuum cleaner, few of us regularly encounter robots in our daily lives. This is changing right before our eyes. From drones to driverless vehicles, surgery assistants to home companions, robotic technologies are going mainstream.

“Robots are no longer sitting there alone and building cars like they were in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Malle, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences and associate chair of the department. “Robots are increasingly entering society as interactants — partners, team members, and caretakers. Now that robots are entering these settings, we have to deal with all the implications and opportunities that go along with that.”

This means getting a better understanding of how humans perceive and interact with robots, Malle said. It also means designing robots that are responsive to people’s needs and operate smoothly in society. The HCRI group has already started several projects aimed at addressing these kinds of issues. Among them is a DARPA-funded project led by Malle, Littman, and Joe Austerweil, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, that investigates ways of making robots that have a sense of social norms.

“The goal is to build computational and cognitive models of social and moral norms with a view toward incorporating such systems into robots,” Malle said.

Other HCRI projects include a budding collaboration with Hasbro on developing affordable companions for the elderly and research into how robotic technologies can help people to control their alcohol habits. Stefanie Tellex, assistant professor of computer science, recently received DARPA funding to develop algorithms that help robots interpret human speech and gesture more quickly and accurately.

The HCRI group plans to use the funding made available by the University to expand this kind of research. The group’s activities will be loosely broken down into six research clusters:

  • Robots for Scientific Research will work to develop robotic systems for use in geology, archaeology and other scientific disciplines.
  • Motion Systems Science will look for ways to make robots better at getting around in the real world.
  • Design and Making will work toward building systems well-tailored to specific tasks.
  • Perception and Decision-Making will explore questions in artificial intelligence and computer vision.
  • Robots for Independent Living will develop systems to help in healthcare and elder care settings.
  • Ethics, Policy, and Security will look at ways of easing robots safely into society.

The new HCRI associate director and postdoctoral researcher should be in place soon. The group will start offering seed funding to research teams next semester.

“With this support from the University, we think we can build something unique here at Brown,” Malle said.