The brand new director of the Robotics Institute at CMU on the way forward for robotics analysis

After two years Professor Srinivasa Narasimhan will take on a transitional role as Carnegie Mellon welcomes the sixth director of his Robotics Institute. Matthew Johnson-Roberson, who graduated from CMU’s School of Computer Science in 2005, joins the school after serving as Associate Professor of Engineering in the Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the University of Michigan and in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Johnson-Roberson was also co-director of the UM Ford Center for Autonomous Vehicles, from whose office he answered our call to discuss his plans for his new position and what he believed the future of robotics research would be.

TC: You are currently in Michigan working on that new Ford wing?

MJR: Yeah, I’m here and there are a couple of students. Just do some robotic stuff. Having a good time.

What was your focus there?

A number of different things, but it’s long-term blue-sky research for Ford. You, like Argo, do a lot of work on things that hopefully will hit the road in the next six months to three years. We’ve looked a lot more into things that are five to ten years away from getting on the streets. That’s one of the nice things about universities that we can adopt that blue sky approach to things from weird new sensors to lots of reflections on human predictions and safety guarantees.

I see the Ford / U of M setup as a model that universities are increasingly focusing on. Universities – especially those like the CMU – have a long history of wealthy benefactors. Do you see such a partnership as the model for future university research?

It reflects the kind of transformation that robotics has undergone over the past 20 years. So many of the technologies that were developed in the ’90s and’ 00s are now reaching a level of maturity at which they will be introduced into commercial products and will make a huge difference to the future of many industries. I think it’s a natural extension of that. You are starting to see relationships between universities and companies. Even if you think of Pittsburgh as a city, that change will only accelerate if heavy industry focuses on natural resources and steel.

The story goes on

Part of my goal is to continue relationships and build new ones. Beyond pure industry, we think of government and politics and all the other things that are now becoming more relevant to robotics – make sure we make those relationships and build on the strengths of the engineering work already going on at the institute. I’m particularly looking forward to that.

Pittsburgh has a number of these native startups, but also big companies like Google that are closer to the research and court graduates. What can the CMU do to further promote such a relationship?

You’re opening a Waymo office to work with one of the professors at CMU so you can see those relationships – not just the faculty, but the students as well. The lifeblood of all these companies is new, well-trained employees, and anything you can do to help recruit and build a culture that people want to come to is a huge benefit for these companies. They see them come together, sponsor research, and do all of these things that help them develop new projects but also build new relationships with new students. The richest part of the university is that you get a new crop every year from some of the smartest people in the world.

Will it be part of your job to build some of these startups natively in the broader university context?

Yes. After having the opportunity to start a startup myself, I think that knowing that there is this huge knowledge gap, that there are so many students who are so smart and have such great ambitions for the world, there are ways to go find to help them fulfill my role. One possibility that you just highlighted is startups. People talk a lot about ecosystems. Part of that is that there are other startups in the area, but second, you have a community where you can find like-minded people to do and build things with.

You’re on the U of M so you’ve seen some of the changes that are taking place in Detroit. Detroit may not be as advanced as Pittsburgh when it comes to nurturing the startup community, but there are plenty of options there. What role can school play in retaining the talent the CMU draws to the city?

There are a couple of things. One thing that I forever consider to be more important is to make sure you acknowledge that the opportunities are out there. The speed and size of the robotics industry is accelerating at a rate I believe none of us could have guessed. An important part of this is acknowledging this and not trying to stay stationary. The industry is changing, the robotics ecosystem is changing, and the size and scale of these companies is changing. Let’s find out how to do this.

Robotics has not been the most comprehensive field in the past. What role can the CMU play in this? I suppose by the time most people enroll in a place like CMU, has robotics been their focus for a while?

I would like to leave two things to the CMU during this time. One is to increase the chances, ensure that we expand participation and see local representation. Second, I think this is perhaps more important that universities are good at shaping young people’s minds. I couldn’t think of a better position to try and make a difference to bring more diversity and inclusion to robotics than being at the leading research institution for robotics research. That means you are at the point of creation of the next generation of robotics.

You’re a good example of this – you didn’t start with robotics as a focus at CMU.

Precisely. And I go one step further. When I got to CMU, I was struggling. It was the first place I’d ever been where everyone was smarter than me. In my opinion, that’s what makes this place special. Whatever happened, it didn’t make me quit robotics, leave, and never come back. And I think that’s a testimony to the people who were there then and are still there today.

What is it that excites you most in robotics these days?

We are really at this turning point when it comes to large, deployed robotic field systems in the world. Someday, I want you to look out your window, wherever you are in the US and in the world, and see a robot doing something useful. This is not the world we live in right now. If you walk into a factory floor or a few other places, you can see a robot. You might have a robot hoover, but I want it to be at a point where you look out the window and see a robot.

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