May 23, 2012

Saxena's Microsoft fellowship to enhance personal robots

Saxena

Ashutosh Saxena, assistant professor of computer science, has been named one of seven Microsoft Research Faculty Fellows for 2012. The award includes funding of $200,000 over two years to expand his effort to develop "personal robots" that can take over mundane household tasks and assist the elderly and disabled.

In Saxena's Robot Learning Lab in Upson Hall, graduate students work with one-armed industrial robots and some home-grown contraptions, teaching the machines, in effect, how to learn, so they can adapt to the cluttered environments of homes, hospitals and nursing homes and the highly unstructured behavior of the humans they work with.

Ordinary industrial robots carry out precisely programmed motions: You can program one to pick up a cup from a specific location in the cupboard and place it in a specific location on the table. If the cup isn't there, too bad; if the table isn't there, even worse. So Saxena's team adds a computer brain and a Microsoft Kinnect 3-D camera. The robot can be shown a series of coffee cups, notice what features they all have in common and learn to recognize the next coffee cup it sees, even if it's slightly different, and pick it up by whatever sort of handle it has. Similarly, a robot can learn to scan an unfamiliar kitchen to find the sink, dishwasher and cupboards so it knows where and how to place the cups.

Understanding what humans are doing is harder, but the researchers have taught robots to observe humans and identify a number of common activities. The next step, Saxena says, is to link perceptions with actions so a robot could, for example, notice that a patient hasn't taken his medicine, remind him, and bring the bottle to his bedside.

The Microsoft funding has enabled Saxena to purchase a PR2 robot from Willow Garage, a company devoted to creating hardware for personal robotics research. Like Willow Garage, Saxena proposes to make the results of his research freely available for the benefit of society.

The new robot, dubbed "Kodiak" (all the robots in the lab are named after bears, in reference to Cornell's mascot), is mobile, has two arms and, most importantly, provides feedback on the amount of force its hands exert so it can, for example, learn to pick up an egg. The funds also will be used to expand the lab with additional researchers.

The Microsoft awards, previously known as Microsoft New Faculty Fellowships, are intended to support young scientists "who are advancing computing research in novel directions with the potential for high impact on the state of the art, and who demonstrate the likelihood of becoming thought leaders in the field."

The fellowship also provides access to Microsoft resources, such as software, invitations to conferences and engagements with Microsoft researchers.

Saxena, who joined the Cornell faculty in 2009, received his B.Tech. from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur in 2004 and his M.S and Ph.D. from Stanford University in 2006 and 2009, respectively.