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Robots for the Real World

A new institute takes on the ethics, economics and policies of robotics

By Gregg Kleiner

You arrive home in your driverless car, which perfectly parallel parks itself at the curb. As you’re walking to your front door, you see your solar-powered, autonomous garden assistants quietly clipping your lawn, weeding a flowerbed, and cleaning out the rain gutter. With impeccable timing, your front door is opened from the inside by your personal robot (we’ll call it Benny), which recites a short poem you always find calming, then announces the latest news about your favorite college sports team (the Beavers). As you’re settling in, the robot reminds you that your self-driving car will be serviced where it’s parked out on the street in approximately 27 minutes, and that tomorrow the bouquet of orange roses for your sweetheart’s birthday will appear at precisely 7:08 a.m. outside your bedroom window (delivered by a bipedal robot developed at Oregon State University). Later, after Benny has unloaded your dishwasher, it enters the den and informs you that there was an unfortunate accident during the unloading process. The cat is fine, it reassures you, however, that favorite teacup of yours … well, not so much. The good news, it quickly adds, is that the shattered mess is all cleaned up, and would you care for a cocktail?

Game-Changing Technology

Robots are poised to impact society in ways as momentous and life-altering as the introduction of the automobile or the personal computer — technologies that forced humanity to adapt and changed the course of human history.

As one of the top four robotics programs in the nation, the College of Engineering at Oregon State University is making major contributions to this fledgling field. Chief among them is a new institute aimed at addressing not only the research and education related to robotics but also the ethics, policy and economic and legal issues that come with such a wide-reaching technology.

“What’s going to slow the introduction of robots into our everyday lives is not the technology, because we already know a lot about how to build robots,” says Bill Smart, Oregon State robotics professor. “It’s questions like who’s going to get sued when a robot eats your cat, or when one breaks down mid-task?” Under development in his lab is an autonomous wheelchair for people with disabilities and robotics for use on the front lines of infectious disease outbreaks like Ebola.

Cindy Grimm, associate professor of mechanical engineering, works on robot grasping mechanisms by studying the decision-making criteria that humans use. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

Robots are no longer shiny, fictitious Hollywood creations that beep and blink and whirr, á la R2-D2 or C-3PO of Star Wars fame. Nor are they restricted to repetitive tasks like spot welding on assembly lines inside manufacturing plants. Today, robots are interacting with human beings in a dizzying range of applications – from drones flying over agricultural fields to detect wasted irrigation water, to self-driving automobiles, soft-bodied undersea exploration vehicles and table-top devices serving as 24/7 personal assistants that are always at the ready to answer questions, play music, turn on lights, call a cab or announce sports scores.

And a new class of “service robots” are poised to provide everything from home cleaning and wheelchair navigation to hotel guest deliveries and personal companionship for people living alone.

Austin Whitesell, Ph.D. student, works on a project to use robots and automation in the treatment of highly infectious diseases, such as Ebola. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

This rapid growth of all things robotic has universities worldwide scrambling to launch and expand programs in robotics and artificial intelligence. The influx of robots on daily life is also raising social, ethical, legal and economic issues that touch on the potential loss of jobs, privacy, personal space and more.

The Birth of an Institute

An emphasis on the ethics and policy choices of robotics distinguishes the college’s newly launched Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems Institute from other robotics programs. Research and education round out its mission.

“What makes our program here at Oregon State unique is that we’re not just building or deploying robots, but we are looking at how robots will impact society in the next 10 years,” says Kagan Tumer, a professor of robotics and director of CoRIS. “Someone graduating from OSU with a degree in robotics will not only be a specialist but will also understand how robotics will impact the future.”

Smart says the new robotics institute is about “robots for the real world.” At Oregon State, he says, “we don’t just build robots, we build them and put them into the real world: a factory floor, the forest, an ocean. And the real world includes policy, ethics and much more than just the technology.”

Kagan Tumer, professor of mechanical engineering, is co-director of the Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute at Oregon State. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

OSU researchers like Smart, Tumer and Jonathan Hurst, who specializes in bipedal locomotion, believe the development of robots is on par with other new technologies that have dramatically impacted human life. Think automobiles and computers. Today, cars are everywhere, almost everyone carries a powerful personal computer in a purse or pocket, and the impact on people, and the planet, has been profound.

“Robotics is just starting to hit the point of exponential growth,” says Hurst, who joined the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering in 2008, when nobody was hiring roboticists and the United States had only two degree-granting robotics programs, Carnegie Mellon (Hurst’s alma mater) and Georgia Tech. “Today robotics is at about the same stage that computers were when the first PCs came out. And people are starting to recognize that the impact of robotics on society will be on a scale similar to the impact the computer has had.”

Hurst recently spun out Agility Robotics, a start-up company in Albany that designs and manufactures bipedal robots developed at Oregon State (see “A New Way of Walking”).

Will A Robot Take Your Job?

Bring up the growth of robotics to friends and family, and chances are that the conversation will turn to the likelihood that robots will take jobs away. But the Oregon State researchers say it’s too early to tell how robots will impact jobs, because the issue is complex. New industries will create jobs, some of which we can scarcely imagine.

“Robotics is going to create entirely new industries and jobs,” Tumer says. “Think of plumbers or car mechanics — those jobs didn’t exist before there was indoor plumbing or automobiles.”

The production of robots will also create manufacturing jobs as well as robot technicians, Tumer adds. “You’re going to need robot repair people and robot trainers and people who design and build the robots. So it will not simply be a net job loss or gain, but more of a shift of jobs, and that’s not easy to predict at this point. Some sectors will lose jobs, but others will gain.”

Yiğit Mengüç, assistant professor, studies soft robotics, mechanical systems with Callie Branyan, student in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

Robots will also help humans avoid dangerous tasks that currently result in bodily injury or disease. Tumer cites Smart’s research on robots to serve people who have an infectious disease. For example, machines could be used to change soiled linens, a task that puts humans at risk of infection.

“We’re not talking about replacing the nurse or the doctor,” Tumer says. “You will still have the human care element, but do we really need a human being in contact with the soiled sheets? Absolutely not, because the human element adds no value and actually limits how often the sheets are changed. With a robot, you could change the bedding six times a day, so you might actually improve the care while allowing the human to do more.”

Tumer sees robots working alongside humans and adding capability instead of taking away jobs. “In this case, everything is a little cleaner because you have a robot around, so everyone is a little safer.”

No. 4 in the Nation

Founded just two years ago, Oregon State’s graduate program in robotics has quickly established itself as one of the top four robotics programs in the country. Other programs are coming online, but OSU’s visionary leadership and emphasis on culture, community and collaboration are attracting student and faculty candidates in record numbers from all over the world.

This year alone, the program received more than 400 applications for slightly more than a dozen highly coveted master’s and doctoral positions. And rock-star robotics faculty are passing up offers at other top schools to join the Oregon State program because of its reputation as a hot spot for robotics innovation and a culture that’s more akin to a corporate startup than an academic department.

Yiğit Mengüç, an assistant professor specializing in bio-inspired soft robotics, says the reason he passed up job offers at other prestigious schools to join Oregon State in 2014 was the close-knit culture and the unusual sense that he was joining a startup.

“The feeling I had after interviewing here was that I would be in on the ground floor of an exciting startup, and that’s very rare in academia,” says Mengüç. “The fact our students and faculty are all in one building is also distinct. I have not seen a robotics group that’s so tightly integrated, which is another competitive advantage.”

A Lab Without Borders

The OSU robotics program and the headquarters of the new institute are housed in historic Graf Hall, a brick building that was at one point slated for demolition. The open, high-bay lab is surrounded by both faculty and student offices and is not delineated or “owned” by individuals. The northern wall is mostly paned windows, flooding the flexible space with natural light.

Graf Hall on OSU’s Corvallis campus buzzes with activity in the Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

Will Allen, an HP Fellow with HP Labs in Corvallis, who is partnering with OSU on several robotics research projects, says the facility in Graf Hall exemplifies the program’s focus on collaboration and its startup mentality.

“What gets me excited is when you stand inside that building and look down and see people doing soft robotics in one area, and next to that is a large spider web where they are figuring out bio-motion, and beyond that a two legged-robot is running in place and making a lot of racket, and all of this is physically in the same space, together — along with the faculty and grad student offices,” Allen says. “They have created a very unique environment where people can interact and operate together.”

This spring, Julie Adams, who specializes in human-robot interaction, joined the 11-member robotics faculty. Along with Cindy Grimm and Heather Knight, Adams brings the number of women faculty in the program to almost one-third. “That’s very unusual,” Adams says. “And Oregon State has a breadth and depth in the area of human-robot interaction that very few other schools, if any, can match.”

The new institute will enable Oregon State to better compete for research funding, private support and prestige. It will include more than 50 faculty in other units on campus, from forestry and oceanography to the social sciences.

Working with Industry

OSU robotics faculty and students are engaged with several industry partners, including ESCO Corporation, a Portland foundry looking to use robotics to keep workers safe from extreme temperatures and heavy cast parts. HP is sponsoring research with OSU robotics professors Grimm, Mengüç and Ross Hatton as the company explores ways to transform deep robotics research into solutions for business.

When HP’s Allen met with Tumer to discuss work on a highly complex aspect of technology related to robotics, Tumer was pleased to team up.

“Dr. Tumer said they were always looking for highly challenging problems,” Allen says. “So we said, ‘what if we work on automating how to get from a research stage, where you have to understand something at a very deep level to operate it, to a more integratable stage, where it can be implemented more quickly for industry?’ Everyone agreed that would be challenging. This epitomizes Oregon State’s attitude and the quality of their program.”

The university is making a significant, high-level investment in robotics, Allen adds. “It’s a long-position investment in people and infrastructure and not the type of thing you do for two months or a couple of years. Oregon State is making a big play, and because HP has a productive relationship with the university, good things will come out of this — for all of us.”

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By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.