Faculty Spotlight: Kristin Dana, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering

“What we need are robotic devices to work for people and help make their lives better.” 

–Kristin Dana, Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering

Professor Kristin Dana joined the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1999. Her research interests include computer vision, robotics, AI, computational photography, and machine learning. She has recently received a $3 million, five-year National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NSF NRT) grant for her project, “SOCRATES: Socially Cognizant Robotics for a Technology Enhanced Society.” 

As PI, she is collaborating with a cross-disciplinary Rutgers team of Co-PIs that includes Bloustein School of Urban Planning professor Clinton Andrews; School of Arts and Sciences computer engineering professor Kostas Bekris and psychology professor Jacob Feldman; and School of Engineering mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Jingang Yi. Additional faculty members of the core team are: Pernille Hemmer, Aaron Mazzeo, Hal Salzman, and Matthew Stone. 

By integrating technology with social and behavioral sciences, SOCRATES aims to develop and implement an innovative, transformative approach to STEM graduate education training. The team will create a new, interdisciplinary curriculum for robotics specialization focusing on:

  • Technology – from building and controlling robots to learning from large datasets
  • Cognitive science – designing socially cognizant systems
  • Policy – from assessing unexpected consequences to planning for impacts that benefit society

While the project offers tremendous opportunity to graduate student participants, its  long-range goal is to grow a community of researchers able to apply an understanding of social structures and processes to the development of robotic systems that benefit both individuals and society as a whole.

Congratulations on your NSF-NRT grant for your SOCRATES project. What does this award mean to you?

I’ve thought for some time that robotics is falling short in helping people in their everyday life and work. 

An anecdote from my own life inspires me. My mother took care of my father in his last years as his mobility declined. She was a lot smaller than he was, so when he fell, she couldn’t pick him up. As an engineer, I was embarrassed there was no semi-automated solution. 

What kind of robotic devices do you think we need most?

People think robots will replace them. In fact, what we need are robotic devices to work for people and help make their lives better. Robots shouldn’t take over from humans – but can augment their lives in very positive ways. 

A great example of robotics augmentation are exoskeletons for workers. It’s unacceptable that so many people become disabled because of their work. Robotic exoskeletons can prevent injuries and make jobs more accessible. While robots working with and for people is a realizable goal, robots replacing humans is  unrealistic in most cases. Robots don’t really have the capacity to do what humans are good at, such as creative thoughts and taking care of things when they go wrong. Robots are generally terrible at solving unexpected problems, but they can free humans from mundane tasks to do more of what humans do best.

What might we need less of?

When I was a teenager and wanted to be an engineer, I was attracted to the idea of improving the quality of life. I took it on faith that when you develop new technology you accomplish this goal. Now, I see that’s not necessarily true. 

When I see the enormous amount of publicity devoted to innovations like pizza delivery by drones, I wonder if this will help society. Should we be doing that? What will the impact on our quality of life be? Drones can be good – but I do see a need for engineers to work closely with people who are experts at building society and experts at knowing what humans need and want, so we can build technology for humans that benefits society. This is an area the SOCRATES project – which is a true team effort – will explore. 

How will training socially cognizant roboticists who are mindful of both technology and social sciences counter negative impressions of robotics?

The view that robots will take over is a big problem. We see this from the beginning of the industrial revolution, which changed the nature of work. Technological progress has both good sides and bad sides. 

If  we can devise metrics to judge robotics systems that consider more than just efficiency and speed – and even consider jobs, the nature of work, and human impact – we will reap the rewards for society.

What kind of robotics systems does your project focus on?

We intend to use a set of robots and intelligent devices that will comprise the Rutgers Robotics Live lab. We will use the Rutgers University campus as a model of society and concentrate on campus tasks. Robots are still quite unintelligent, but as they grow in abilities, it’s important to consider how they should mesh with society.  So we have a signature challenge, Robotics for Everyday Augmented Living, or REAL. We want to focus on strength and mobility assistance; recycling and trash collection; and food preparation. We’ll look at the social effects of and unexpected or unintended consequences of these innovation cases studies.  

REAL will also focus on smart building. Clint Andrews at Bloustein has started some interesting conversations about smart building where everything – such as temperature and light controls – is automatic. Truly smart buildings, though, should be designed to preserve human autonomy and dignity and should adapt to human needs as opposed to the other way around. 

Have you started work on the project yet?

During our first year, we’ll have a lot of starting up to do, including course development,  student recruitment and employing simulated  environments for robotics on the cloud. 

Is the partnership of technologists/engineers and social scientists a natural fit? 

Yes and no – because it is a timely topic we are all thinking about, the impact of technology. Technologists recognize that our algorithm metrics often don’t include social issues. Nobody really knows how to do this right just yet. A first step is to build an interdisciplinary program that includes monthly meetings,  a new curriculum and a new annual robotics workshop to initiate and develop this new interdisciplinary field of socially cognizant robots. 

Your project will support graduate student trainees. How will it do this?

We expect to train more than 35 graduate students, including 17 grant-funded trainees during the course of the project. Our trainees, selected from areas each of us on the project team are involved in, will have advisors from both technology and social science sides. 

Our traineeship will be a model of how to train technology-aware social scientists and socially aware scientists and technologists.

In addition to developing a new curriculum, how else will students be involved? 

We hope that by next year we can have in-person summer internships through our Industry Consortium. 

We also plan to offer a Faculty Talk-It-Up Robotics Series and annual workshop. Our intention is to give them in-person, although unfortunately we can’t do that right away. We’ll  figure out a remote way to do it initially.

What about the student-led robotics club?

It will follow the model of a novice-to-entry, or N2E, coding club for undergraduate and graduate students.  I noticed that students without coding expertise  felt discouraged or intimidated to start coding when they saw students who are experts. I initiated the N2E coding club with the help of a grad student Parneet Kaur who ran student-led workshops that were great for confidence building – both for the experts who led the workshops and the students eager to acquire skills.  The key message: being a novice is okay  and there is a manageable path for becoming an expert.  

What do you most enjoy about your job?

I enjoy facilitating the success of my students. I recently heard from a Disney imagineer and former Rutgers undergraduate student who told me he still has his old notebook from my class and that techniques he learned from my ECE 472 Robotics and Vision class have helped him in his career. I was very happy to hear this feedback, and my students have contacted me with similar comments over the years. When you instill knowledge, it’s like planting a garden, and through your students’ continued efforts amazing things can grow.