Chad Jenkins: Computer Scientist and Roboticist

Source: National Geographic Explorers

Chad Jenkins

Photograph by Anastasia Cronin/NGS

Chad Jenkins explores new aspects of how robots can learn and interact with humans. As an associate professor of computer science at Brown University, he leads a robotic learning research group. He is currently on sabbatical from Brown and working at the robotics company Willow Garage.

What’s the first thing you’ll ask your robot to do? Wash dishes? Sweep floors? Pour a drink? Chad Jenkins’s research explores smarter ways to help robots make the leap from the lab to your living room.

“For robots to be useful in the real world, anyone, not only technical specialists, must be able to easily train and control them,” the scientist says. The key may be rooted in an idea as old as humanity—learning from demonstration. “What if, instead of preprogramming every incremental action with complex computing language, we treat a robot as a student and actually teach it to imitate us, the way we might teach a child to throw a ball?”

The research group Jenkins leads at Brown University has used this approach to train robots to navigate a basic maze and clean a messy room. His team collects data from human demonstrations, analyzes it to pinpoint the underlying gist of any action, and creates learning algorithms that eventually enable robots to act on their own. Armed with the algorithms, robots can respond to new environments based on prior learning rather than waiting to be reprogrammed. “We’re moving past treating robots as remote-control devices. We’re helping them learn,” he says.

The greater the number and variety of demonstrations a robot sees, the better it masters any given task. Jenkins found an effective shortcut for exposing robots to a wealth of demonstrations via crowdsourcing. Over the past few years, hundreds of people have participated in training his lab’s robots by logging on to the group’s website and, from there, controlling robots, helping them improve at block-stacking, soccer, and household chores.

“Robots are not mainstream yet because they are still difficult to use, train, and program,” Jenkins says. “Our job is to make the plethora of robots that will one day be on the market more multitalented. I believe learning from demonstration is how they’ll become valuable to the public at large.”

Jenkins’s current sabbatical finds him at Willow Garage, a robotics company that designs and produces the PR2, a human-scale, two-armed robot with the ability to grasp and manipulate objects.

Jenkins predicts widespread use of robots will transform society in the near future, similar to how personal computing over the last 30 years has revolutionized our everyday lives. Robots already carry meals, medicines, blood samples, and laundry through hospitals and transform operating rooms with robotic surgery. At home, they now vacuum floors and will one day be assembling your do-it-yourself furniture.

Jenkins also cites the Robots for Humanity partnership between Georgia Tech and Willow Garage that allows a quadriplegic man to use a PR2 robot to perform daily personal tasks such as shaving, retrieving items from drawers, and even scratching an itch for the first time in ten years. The man directs the robot with his gaze and uses one finger to control the computer’s cursor via robotics Web technologies developed at Brown.

Jenkins foresees that affordable, accessible robots could change the landscape of manufacturing, making it cheaper to hire local workers alongside robots than outsourcing those jobs to other countries. On assembly lines, a new robotic breed works side by side with people to pack and sort parts. And that gift you ordered? A robot may move it from the warehouse shelves to a packing station.

“They have been very successful at learning through demonstration,” Jenkins says. “Workers simply move the robot arm to show it how to pick up objects and place them somewhere else.” If puzzled by instructions, robots with expressive facial displays raise an eyebrow.

Jenkins says robots may not only save jobs but also lives. “If robots remove explosive ordnance in war zones, soldiers won’t face the risks of bomb collection.”

What’s next? “I think people will just want to tell robots what to do using words,” Jenkins says. He’s already helped robot helicopters zoom through his university’s computer science building following verbal commands.

“The big question is how will the human-robot relationship evolve? We’re working on ways robots can help people be more productive, enjoy a higher quality of life, and accomplish more as a society by completing tasks that aren’t getting done cost effectively,” he says. “Robotics today is like the pre-Internet stage of computing—about to explode into real environments all over the place. It’s an incredibly exciting time.”