Time Machine 2018: Scott Niekum, Constructing the Robotic Colleague
How distant is the future of having a robot coworker? As the director of the Personal Autonomics Robotics Lab (PeARL) at the University of Texas, Scott Niekum aims to find out.
Niekum’s goal is to see robots deployed on a mass scale in the home and workplace without needing expert attention. These robots aren’t meant to take over humans’ lives, but rather help in day-to-day tasks.
Writing code to provide robots with human knowledge is labor-intensive and requires highly trained specialists. Instead, Niekum seeks to help robots learn through natural observation and correction. In a demonstration from Niekum’s lab, robots are guided through the process of building IKEA furniture. After watching how a human builds it, the robot then attempts the process on its own. (Hopefully, the robots ignore the final step most humans take when building IKEA furniture: getting a divorce.)
The robots don’t always get it right on the first time, though, sometimes completely missing the object they intend to grab and requiring physical correction from an expert. Niekum hopes that robots will eventually be able to learn and self-correct from subtle human communication cues such as speech, gestures, and even eye movement. This means humans will need to treat the robots empathetically as adaptive learners and not mindless assistants.
Niekum’s recent research centers around what it will take to get robots into the mainstream, and realize a future of mass-deployed robots. While this may sound frightening to some, he’s excited for robots to provide meaningful help to humans.
Having studied at Carnegie Mellon University and ultimately earned his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Niekum is used to researching cutting-edge subjects. While there may be some risk in involving robots in the every day, he believes that is far outweighed by the potential good they may yield.
There shouldn’t be any reason to fear this possibility, though. With Niekum behind the design, the ever-friendly and always-helpful AI coworker is closer than you think.
As Time Machine 2018 approaches, we’re pleased to highlight some of the global executives, cultural innovators, and industry trailblazers who will be speaking at the conference.