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When Robots Rule the World, They'll Come From Pennsylvania

Youngmoo Kim
Youngmoo Kim
The world is slowly filling with robot sweepers, robot pianists, robot space travelers and (by 2050) robot prostitutes. By all rights, if everything goes as it has in the last several years, those android products will come from Pennsylvania or be highlighted throughout the Commonwealth.
 
From the automatons that Philadelphia's Franklin Institute had in relationship to Martin Scorsese's Hugo to Hazleton's Mayor Joseph Yannuzzi's eminent domain land grab for a robotic parking facility; from King of Prussia's Devon Robotics cancer therapy safety systems to Pittsburgh's Redzone Robotics' water infrastructure and sewage inspection droids; you've got cyborg friends in Pennsylvania.
 
In particular, it is Pennsylvania's universities and its offshoots that are doing the most good and forging forward with innovative technologies to say nothing of their practical applications.
 
Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania and its Modlab spray-on foam robots – Foambots – that build and repair themselves and other bots using spray fizz may not seem too terribly practical unless you're in the military. UPenn's GRASP Laboratory (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception) and the work its doing with autonomous quadrocopters (flying robots) is for you. So are GRASP's haptic innovations regarding the science of touch for fun and physical therapy pertinent to lay folk and cyber enthusiasts alike.

Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University and its various offshoots such as Astrobotic Technology Inc., ReSquared and, its most famous split-off, Carnegie Robotics, have been creating affordable robotics for interplanetary and local travel for over a decade. Philadelphia's Drexel University, in association with its research partner, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, has been outfitting robots with tactile sensor operations, microphones and cameras so that the droids can act more human, maybe even feel more humanly, so to do everything from act as assistants to the physically impaired to acting as real time collaborators with musicians in improvisational, band-like situations.

Robot Sounds
At least that's been the goal of Dr. Youngmoo Kim, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, assistant dean of media technologies in the College of Engineering and director of the Music and Entertainment Technology (MET) Laboratory, since 2009.
 
"The outgrowth of how my department blossomed into robotic had a natural progression from the start," says Kim just days after the city-wide Philadelphia Science Festival of which Drexel, the good doctor and its Hubo humanoid robots were the event's runaway breakout stars.

"Robotics is but an extension of human computer interaction,.the way we interact with our digital devices for understanding music and its tools."

While the robot industry and its astute studies - throughout the state, at Drexel – has had a lot going for itself in regard to its interfacing enterprises, where Kim is concerned, people are the connection, mostly because of our daily relationship to computers.

"Robots are computers with motors," says Kim before mentioning his school's bots and the opportunities they've been afforded, to play music and interact physically with the sonic art form.

"Why would we want to do that? Because there so much about musical performance and musical expression that we don't know or understand - the micro-gestures, the way a pianist's hands stroke the keys or guitarist does his arms."

Robots offer a way for Kim and company to test his hypothesis about human performance capabilities and parametric space through perceptual experimentation. Dr. Kim states clearly that his robot program's labs' sole focus is to find out about and experiment within the world of humanoid bots designed by humans for humans and for each and everyone to be more affordable and approachable. He's guessing that would happen in the next 15 years in accordance with the trajectory of home computing.

"Our vision is for robots to be assistant devices and helpers in regard to activities that are difficult or dangerous for humans to do," says Kim.

"The challenge is to get them be able to manipulate things with ease.  We're also focused on creative and expressive robot-ing. If they are to be a real help, they need to be more approachable, to respond in more human-like ways, which is why musical activity and improvisation is our goal."

Musical expression, in Kim's mind, offers insights into the future as well as insights into what it means to be human and act humanly. This is Drexel's distinct contribution to the field of robotic creation, innovation and maintenance. Dr. Kim though is quick to point out the achievements and capabilities of UPenn and CMU. Together, these universities and their offshoots have created a creative technological vortex wherein this state is a leader in robotic sciences and creation.
 
As academics, their nature is to share information and innovation – at conferences, in papers. Though Kim has friends scattered throughout these other area universities, Drexel is an official collaborator throughout several projects; partners with CMU and UPenn along with Ohio State, Virginia Tech and MIT.

Robotic State of Mind
Why is Pennsylvania so quick on the robot uptake? Why are we making what seems like the most important robots? Is this state doing more for robotics than most states or are we merely on par?
 
"Yes, I believe that we are dong more in this state than others states," claims Kim. "The reason being is that we have great academic institutions that have been pushing forward with an ambitious research agenda and advanced thinking. Carnegie Mellon got invested in robotics decades ago."
 
While Kim believes that Pennsylvania's leadership comes down to a combination of institutional educational investment and great people to pursue that agenda, Dan Beaven, the Chief Financial Officer at Carnegie Robotics relates it to Pennsylvania's good old history of manufacturing, machining and mechanical engineering.

"In general, those industries although hurt by the national decimation of our manufacturing base, have survived here and are now doing very well by many measures," states Beaven. "There is a large industrial base to draw from, for skilled workers, suppliers and such. This also means that out of the PA population our excellent universities and trade schools turn out a lot of top graduates with the requisite skills necessary for robotics, as well as the work ethic to be successful."
 
Beaven puts forth an idea that's purely Pennsylvanian at its blue-collar roots. The remaining ‘old school' industrial base has survived, adapted and now thrives. Combine that with the historical local aptitude for mechanical engineering, this translates to other robotics related disciplines such as software, electronics and materials science moving forward along with humanoid brethren.
 
Emphasis on the word "brethren."

A.D. AMOROSI writes about everything, always from his home base in Philadelphia. Send feedback here.

Photographs of Youngmoo Kim at Drexel University by MICHAEL PERSICO
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