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Science/Technology

New USC Viterbi professor sees robots in future

by Stephanie Shimada
Nora Ayanian comes to USC from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Photo: Nora Ayanian comes to USC from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nora Ayanian remembers watching The Jetsons as a child and imagining what it would be like to have her own personal Rosie the Robot make sandwiches with the push of a button.

Ayanian, who will join the USC Viterbi School of Engineering faculty as an assistant professor this fall, is playing a role in making this dream a reality by creating technologies that will enable people to someday operate their own robots. She envisions robots assisting people with household chores, such as preparing food and washing dishes; monitoring environments and infrastructures; and distributing energy and water, among other natural resources.

“I want to make robots easy to use and have them everywhere,” said Ayanian, a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the past two years. “They should be accessible, user-friendly and interactive so you can have them in your house and in your car. Right now, robots are really difficult for novices to use.”

Ayanian plans to accomplish this goal by creating controllers that require only high-level input, such as maps of the environment, yet take care of the low-level complex algorithms that tell large groups of robots what to do, where to go and how to move. For example, a person could give a group of robots a series of instructions — such as take the items to the stockroom, but do not crowd the elevators and avoid the main hallway — and the robots would intuitively be able to do so. All the user would have to do is upload a map of the environment, and the robots would do the rest.

Ayanian, who received her master’s degree and PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, will bring her expertise in multirobot coordination to the Department of Computer Science at USC Viterbi. She is impressed with USC’s robotics group, particularly the breadth and volume of research and associated top talent drawn by the university.

“It just felt like the right fit,” said Ayanian, who believes her research will be complementary to the robotics work already under way at USC. She plans to leverage expertise from the biological and social sciences to build controls that allow for effective robot-robot, and thus human-robot, interaction.

“I want to push the direction of robotics,” said Ayanian, who in 2008 received the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers’ International Conference on Robotics and Automation Best Student Paper award. “I would love to collaborate with experts in sociology, neurology, biology and user experience. I think this is one of the great things about USC — it is so big and has so many experts in diverse fields.”

One of Ayanian’s first university priorities is to build a new lab at the university focused on automatic robot control solutions. She would use the lab to develop new algorithms for controlling teams of robots and refine designs so that groups of robots move and behave in ways that are more natural and humanistic.

Ayanian is currently developing an iPad application that will allow users to control groups of robots using multitouch technology. By sliding their fingers across the screen, users will be able to tell hundreds of robots where to go and how to navigate.

Ayanian “has really taken some abstract mathematical concepts and put a much friendlier face on them,” said Ross Knepper, her colleague at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “I can see in the future people using a similar interface when they bring their own robots home. This is how they might program them.”

Knepper, who specializes in robotic manipulation, has worked extensively with Ayanian on solving what they call the “robotics problem,” or how to make machines act intelligently in the world. He said Ayanian makes everything look easy, adding that she can take complex concepts and translate them in a way others can understand.

“She’s very good at explaining the core ideas in a way that seems natural and easy,” Knepper said. “It shows that she thoroughly understands the material and can really help other people relate to it. I think that is going to make her an excellent teacher as well as an excellent researcher.”

While it may be several years before our world looks like the one portrayed on The Jetsons, Ayanian believes robots will become an everyday part of our lives.

“The future is robotics everywhere,” she said. “They will be a bigger part of your life than you can really imagine right now. They will affect the way we build, design and equip the world around us.”