This week we visit the realm of robotics to take a closer look at a woman who is bridging the gap between humans and artificial intelligence to aid those in society that need it most. Intelligent, compassionate and brilliant, let’s check out this week’s Fantastic Female.
Dr. Maja Matarić
Dr. Matarić was born in Belgrade while still a part of Yugoslavia (now the capital of Serbia) in 1965 before immigrating to the United States in 1981. She graduated from the University of Kansas in 1987 with a Computer Science degree, moving on to MIT where she received her Master’s in 1990, followed by a PhD in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence 4 years later.
Maja is prolific in her field; in addition to publishing her own book, she has written over 50 journal articles since 1992, co-authored multiple book chapters and served as academic editor several times. She is currently the co-editor and assistant editor of 4 different major journals. She has even starred in 4 separate video documentaries.
If that weren’t enough, Dr. Matarić has an intimidatingly impressive CV. Her current outstanding positions and accomplishments include being the Chan Soon-Shiong Chair Professor of not only Computer Science, but also Pediatrics and Neuroscience at USC. Her research in robotics is done in the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center she is the founding director of, as well as the USC Robotics Research Lab she co-directs. Really though, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of the enormous list of awards she has received before the age of 50, including a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring in 2011. It is consistently noted that Maja has accomplished much at a young age, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.
What has driven Dr. Matarić?
What’s that? Connecting robots and people in social and therapeutic ways; pioneering the field of socially assistive robots. Beginning with stroke patients, Dr. Matarić programmed her robots to recognize introverted and extroverted personalities to help with physical therapy; eventually programming them as well to modify their exercises as time went on with the patient. Her goal is to create empathetic and caring robots able to provide traditional therapeutic caregivers’ tasks. She has broadened the horizon though from stroke survivors to Alzheimer’s patients and the elderly, as well as the young and autistic children, among others with special needs. As such the research her lab does is extensive and her robots are programmed and tested to help with an individual’s learning, recovery, rehabilitation and training, but most of all, companionship. While not meant to replace humans, the robots do act autonomously to provide the best support possible to the patient with the idea of providing a customized therapy session to supplement what is already provided in human interaction and/or enhance it. You can watch a TED Talk about this here.
Accessibility is Key.
Dr. Matarić goes beyond research and labs and puts great effort into outreach. Her published book is The Robotics Primer and companion workbook, aimed at being an accessible work to introduce the reader to robotics. She develops school curriculum for students from K-12 in introducing and teaching robotics while working towards creating readily accessible information in the STEM fields and robotics in school systems. She recruits women and other students to the field who might otherwise not have the chance. Dr. Matarić wants to teach, mentor and prepare today’s generation who will be the next leaders of the field, ensuring women can be an equal proportion of those leaders. Outside of research, development and teaching, Dr. Matarić wants her programs and this technology to be accessible to as many as need it however that may be, but mostly through affordability; therapy is costly but robots don’t have to be.
As we look towards the end of 2015 and into the next year, let’s look towards a future where the goals of those like Dr. Matarić can be realised; where the technology we create is used for the benefit of society; where the most vulnerable and in need are brought to the forefront.