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Home | Seminars and Symposia | Past seminars/symposia: Friday, November 16, 2012

DTC Seminar Series

Innovating Our Future: Robotics and AI at an Inflection Point for Society


Richard M. Voyles
National Robotics Initiative
National Science Foundation

Friday, November 16, 2012
10:30 a.m. seminar
reception following seminar

401/402 Walter Library

View webcast of this seminar

VoylesBoom and bust cycles have always been a part of the economic landscape, but recent years have elevated them to the national consciousness: the "dot-com" bubble, the housing bubble, the derivatives bubble. Generally speaking, after a crash, we expect things to rebound within several years. Robotics experienced such a crash long before it was fashionable; in 1986, due to over-hype of technical potential, the industry endured a bust cycle from which it has not yet fully recovered. As a result, 25 years of steady progress and occasional spectacular breakthroughs have stealthily built up potential for explosive growth. All the key "planets" have miraculously aligned, including government, industry, academe, the laypublic, and financing, for revolutionary advances in manufacturing, healthcare, climate change, sustainability and daily life, all enabled by robotics. Partial evidence of a key piece of this puzzle is the National Robotics Initiative (NRI). The NRI is a new, multi-agency program from the Executive Office to spur American research and development in the field of co-robots. Personally announced in June of last year by President Obama in front of an excited crowd at the Robotics Institute at CMU, the NRI mirrors efforts around the world to accelerate the development of next-generation co-robotic systems that work symbiotically with humans, extending human capabilities and the human's sphere of influence. This program represents a sizable investment for U.S.-based robotics researchers and enlarges the pie from which robotics research can be funded. It also reflects the growing recognition at all levels of government — from municipalities to the United Nations — that the field of robotics is of strategic importance to the intellectual and economic future of the worldwide community. The following month, the President announced the Innovation Corps, an NSF-wide initiative to encourage technology transfer from academic labs to the private sector. These initiatives are just a few examples of the tremendous opportunities for robotics research and robotics commercialization that will dominate this decade and beyond, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. With the first years of the NRI and I-Corps now complete, this talk will outline the goals and individual successes of the roughly $50M recurring research program and $18M innovation program. From my perspective from the combined vantage point of government program director, academic teacher and researcher, and entrepreneur, I will also present my personal observations and predictions on the innovation ecosystem of the coming decades and the central role I think robotics will play in unifying scientific disciplines, enhancing pedagogical approaches, and even corralling public support.


Dr. Voyles received the B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University in 1983, the M.S. in Manufacturing Systems Engineering from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University in 1989, and the Ph.D. in Robotics from the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in 1997. He is currently serving as Program Director at the National Science Foundation leading the National Robotics Initiative as well as a founding PD of the Innovation Corps program. He is currently on leave from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Denver where he is Associate Professor. He is also a Senior Member of the IEEE. He was at the University of Minnesota from 1997 to 2006 in Computer Science and has served as Site Director of the NSF Safety, Security, and Rescue Research Center, an NSF I/UCRC, at both the University of Minnesota and the University of Denver. Dr. Voyles' research interests are in the areas of robotics and artificial intelligence. Specifically, he is interested in the development of small, resource-constrained robots and robot teams for urban search and rescue and surveillance. Dr. Voyles has additional expertise in sensors and sensor calibration, particularly haptic and force sensors, and real-time control. Dr. Voyles' industrial experience includes Dart Controls, IBM Corp., Integrated Systems, Inc., and Avanti Optics. He has also served on the boards of various start-ups and non-profit groups.