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AAAS Fellow Dinesh Manocha: ‘The robots are coming’

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For Dinesh Manocha, the future is like an oncoming car – one that’s finding its own way.

Manocha grew up in India, where his lifelong interest in mathematics led him to computers, then robots: “How can any kid not be excited about robotics?” he asks.  

He earned a Ph.D. at the University of California, spent more than two decades teaching at the University of North Carolina and joined the faculty at the University of Maryland and its Institute for Advanced Computer Studies in 2016.

Manocha was one of the exhibitors at a robotics session at the Annual Meeting, where he showed off three examples ‘bots rooted in Maryland lore: the amphibious Robo Terp, the surf-crawling, self-righting Robo Crab and the flying Robo-Raven. Exhibitors from the U.S. Naval Institute and George Mason University’s Lofaro Labs Robotics also demonstrated devices at the meeting.

He’s also heavily involved with the development of autonomous vehicle technology, designing algorithms that help machines navigate crowds and anticipate human movements. And he’s a AAAS Fellow, elected in 2011.

 

What do you hope Annual Meeting attendees will take away from the event?

Hopefully, we’ll show them some of the exciting research happening at the university. A lot of that research appears in research publications, but the general public doesn’t get to know about it. This will definitely showcase some of the latest cutting-edge research.

I’m also hoping the younger generation -- high school or younger college kids -- will get more excited when they see this. Robotics, along with AI, are some of the most exciting technologies in our society today. We are hoping to really attract a lot of young kids who will join this robotics technology development and contribute in a positive way.

 

Where have the biggest advances happened in the last few years?

Self-driving vehicles are definitely one of the most exciting things. The CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, made a statement a couple of years ago that self-driving vehicles are “the mother of all AI problems.” A self-driving car is a very challenging problem. It’s essentially the development of a robot on the road and it involves significant development of a lot of component technologies. There’s been a lot of progress in computer vision and perception in the last 10 years. Self-driving cars have a lot of sensors like cameras and lidar that uses computer vision methods. Then there’s a lot of research in a part of robotics we call planning and control, robot planning and navigation. Those planning and control algorithms are used for navigation.

And thirdly the sensors, which used to be very expensive, are coming down in price. So, we are seeing good and cheap sensing capabilities coming together … You see a lot of advancements in computer vision and perception, robot planning, sensor development and machine learning are all coming together to ultimately design and make the dream of self-driving cars possible.

 

What got you interested in robotics originally?

Even when I was growing up in India, as an undergraduate in the 1980s, I turned to computer science because it’s very mathematical. Then as I continued my education at the University of California Berkeley in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I got excited about robotics for multiple reasons. It’s a great field. How can any kid not be excited about robotics? You hear about it in science fiction. And second, the field of robotics is very mathematical … so given my mathematical interest, it also came up.

And thirdly, it’s kind of a grand, challenging problem because robotics is a combination of different fields put together and integrated. So, the combination of the fundamental math, the impact and the engineering challenges got me really excited about it.

 

What draws your students to this technology today?

I get all kinds of students, especially at Maryland. I’m teaching a class on robotics. I’m primarily in the departments of computer science and electrical engineering, but I also get students from mechanical engineering. I also get a lot of students from aeronautical engineering. And Maryland also runs a professional master’s program in robotics where people come from all over the world with very varied undergraduate backgrounds.

So, robotics by nature is a very interdisciplinary field. And I’ve been in Maryland less than a year, but every few days I get two or three e-mails from local high school kids in the Baltimore-Washington DC area, and over the summer, they want to come to my lab and do some research program in robotics.

The younger generation, they are very technologically savvy. They all have a smart phone, an iPhone or an Android phone. They play with an Xbox or other games. But most people don’t have robots at home. They really want an opportunity. What really excites me are the number of high school kids who want to work in the robotics lab, and I wish I had a capacity to accommodate all of them.

If you’re a young kid, excited about math and technology and STEM fields, and geekish, how can you not be excited about robotics? It is one of the most exciting technologies we’re seeing at the current time. There are very few kids who aren’t excited about robotics, which is a very good thing for us.

 

Even if we don’t get to a fully self-driving vehicle in the next 5 of 10 years, where do you see the technology getting in that time?

Even if you buy a car today, any latest mini-sedan, it has technologies like cameras around you that can help you with pedestrian protection or to help you follow your lanes. Or we’re seeing some tools in the current cars that are more like driver assistance. We’re seeing some of those computer vision and sensing capabilities being added into the cars.

But the biggest impact of robotics has been in industrial applications, like manufacturing and painting. But as AI technologies come together, we are doing more intelligent robotic manufacturing. You see drones, which are a form of robots, and law enforcement is using them for surveillance. And big companies like Amazon are putting a lot of investment into developing drone technologies for delivery.

Now will that happen in five years? That’s hard to predict. But there is so much excitement in these technologies that we might see some smaller version of that being successful in the next five years. And, Amazon has these large warehouses. Right now, when you order on Amazon, there’s a human involved in pulling an item and packing it up. So, Amazon is investing huge in robotics to manage their warehouses for shipping and if robots can help them with a large number of them packing automatically, that’s a huge cost savings.

So, you see robots being used in practically all aspects of life. And one of the most successful of robotics is medical robotics. They’re being used for surgical applications … so you look at all aspects of your life, transportation, manufacturing, medicine, warehousing – robots are coming.

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Matt Smith