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ND Robotics Research: Fact vs. Fiction

A recent book by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, "House of Robots", takes place in South Bend, IN, and features a fictional CSE professor of robotics who invents remarkable robots able to interact with the world and people within it. Although the character is fictional, cutting edge robotics research at Notre Dame is bringing us closer to the day that robots can serve as teammates and helpers in complex human environments.

Laurel Riek, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, does research with the goal of creating robotics technology that can automatically sense, understand, and respond to human behavior. “The purpose behind this work is to make new things possible for humans: for instance, to save lives by improving patient safety; to give an aging population the independence they need to continue living where and as they please; and to enable people with disabilities,” Riek said. 

“Personal robots that work side-by-side with people are forecasted to be the next big technological revolution,” says Riek. “We are slowly seeing them entering our lives: aiding people with disabilities and older adults, performing onerous chores, and soon transporting us from place to place. However, there remains a gap between intelligent systems that work in the lab, and the reality of building systems that work for real people in the real world. We are working to bridge this gap, particularly in the areas of social sensing and behavior synthesis. We are creating robots that can automatically understand what people are doing, and use that understanding to work more effectively with people across all kinds of different settings.”

On a project funded by a National Science Foundation Early CAREER award, Riek is improving the state-of-the-art for the most-used category of android robots in the world today: human-patient simulators. These robots play an important role in training clinicians, but current systems are missing a key feature. Despite the critical importance of facial cues in diagnosis and effective communication, none of the commercially available simulators have expressive faces.

Riek’s work involves designing new kinds of high-fidelity robotic patient stimulator systems that can express patient signals of pain, stroke, and neurological impairment. “This work will enable hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, EMTs, firefighters, and combat medics to practice their treatment and diagnostic skills extensively and safely on robots before treating real patients,” she said.

On another project, Riek and her students are deploying novel sensing systems in hospitals to study how teams of clinicians work together and model when and how medical errors occur. They hope that one day this technology will enable healthcare teams to intervene when an error happens.

Riek, who was recently named one of the American Society for Engineering Education’s (ASEE) 20 Faculty Under 40, has also been instrumental in developing and enhancing robotics courses. She designed a new course at Notre Dame called “Autonomous Mobile Robots,” which she has taught for the past four years. It is a joint upper-level undergraduate / graduate class that features a hands-on approach to learning. It explores contemporary topics in robotics, from designing healthcare robotics to building driverless cars. It not only focuses on the computational aspects of robotics — sensing, controlling, and planning, but it also capitalizes on the physical nature of robotics by including a series of weekly group-based lab assignments using the Turtlebot robot, an open hardware/open software platform. Students also gain experience using the Robot Operating System, a standard robotics system development tool. 

An innovative aspect of the course is a capstone project that students design, develop and manage entirely themselves, culminating in a major demonstration at Notre Dame’s annual National Robotics Week (NRW), a K-12 outreach event that Riek founded in 2012. National Robotics Week celebrates robotics technology development while educating the public about the many ways in which robotics technology impacts society, while encouraging students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related fields. 

A faculty member since 2011, Riek has been the recipient of multiple national awards for research and teaching innovation, including the National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the Qualcomm Research Scholar Award, several best paper awards, and numerous awards during her eight-year tenure as a senior artificial intelligence engineer and roboticist at MITRE, a not-for-profit research institute. She is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and serves on the editorial board of IEEE Transactions on Human Machine Systems, as well as numerous conference program committees.