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Department of Computer Science and Technology

Image shows Professor Daniela Rus

'How many robots does it take to screw in a lightbulb?' No, it was not a joke. It was the start of The Wheeler Lecture 2021 on 'Reimagining Robots'.

"We have opportunities to re-think what is a robot," said our guest speaker Professor Daniela Rus, Director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT.

She showed us a two-handed robot that was - indeed - screwing in a lightbulb and explained how machine learning had been employed to give the robot the intelligence that was enabling it to move its two 'hands' in two different ways.

Prof Rus pointed out that since first being employed in 1961, robots are now widespread in industry. (There are around 30 million in place globally, picking and placing objects in warehouses or working on assembly lines.) But it is time to usher in a new era, she told us, when "these hard-bodied robots will be replaced by robots that are softer, more dextrous and more inspired by nature."

She used videos to show her audience a fascinating array of new robot forms and functions - and to describe some of the coding and manufacturing challenges that need to be overcome to produce them.

One video featured SoFi, a soft flexible robot fish that can be used as a marine exploration tool. This was the result, she told her audience, of her childhood fascination with Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the films and books of marine researcher Jacques Cousteau.

Inspired by these, she and fellow researchers set out to create a robotic fish that could swim around monitoring marine life without disturbing it - as human divers do.

She also showed us 'Roboat', an autonomous and self-assembling robotic boat that can navigate the narrow canals of Amsterdam. It uses its sensor data to map its environment and plot a path between a series of goal points.

And Prof Rus also described a miniature robot that could be encased in a pill and swallowed so that it could carry out incision-free surgery in the human gut.   


Prof Rus is the Andrew (1956) and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, and Deputy Dean of Research in the Schwarzman College of Computing at MIT.

Her research interests are in robotics and artificial intelligence. The key focus of her research is to develop the science and engineering of autonomy. 

As she pointed out, "while the last 60 years have defined the field of industrial robots, and empowered hard bodied robots to execute complex assembly tasks in constrained industrial settings, the next 60 years could see pervasive robots that come in a diversity of forms and materials, helping people with physical and cognitive tasks. 

"Imagine a world," she concluded, "where if you can think it, you can make it."

This was a fascinating talk. We hope to make the video of her full lecture available shortly.

Annual Wheeler Lectures
The annual Wheeler Lectures are held in memory of Professor David Wheeler, one of the pioneers of Computer Science. He worked on the original EDSAC computer and wrote the first computer program ever to be stored in a computer’s working memory. He pioneered the use of sub-routines and is particularly remembered for his work on data compression. 



Published by Rachel Gardner on Monday 17th May 2021