Logo: University of Southern California

Why Won't The Robots Make Me a Sandwich?

Nora Ayanian, new assistant professor in computer science, strives to make robots accessible to the masses.
By: Stephanie Shimada
August 02, 2013 —

Nora Ayanian
Nora Ayanian remembers watching "The Jetsons" as a child and imagining what it would be like to have her own personal Rosie the Robot that could make sandwiches with the push of a button.

Now, Ayanian, who will be joining the USC Viterbi faculty as an assistant professor this fall, is playing a role in making this dream a reality.

Ayanian, 30, creates technologies that will enable people to operate their own robots someday. She envisions robots doing everything from assisting people with household chores, such as preparing food and washing dishes; building smart cities where robots transport people and packages; monitor environments and infrastructures; and distribute resources like energy and water.

“I want to make robots easy to use and have them everywhere,” Ayanian said. “They should be accessible, user-friendly and interactive so you can have them in your house and in your car. Right now, robots are really difficult for novices to use.”

She plans to accomplish this by creating controllers that require only high-level input, such as maps of the environment, yet take care of the low-level complex algorithms that tell large groups of robots what to do, where to go and how to move. For example, a person could give a group of robots a series of instructions — such as take the items to the stockroom, but do not crowd the elevators and avoid the main hallway — and the robots would intuitively be able to do so. All the user would need to do is upload a map of the environment, and the robots would do the rest.

Because of this, even teams of robots will have simple user interfaces and can be operated using simple commands: multi-touch gestures or simple hand motions, such as tapping or swiping, that initiate desired behaviors.

Ayanian, a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the past two years, will bring her expertise in multi-robot coordination to the Department of Computer Science at USC Viterbi. She is impressed with USC’s robotics group, especially the breadth and volume of research and associated top talent drawn by the university.

“It just felt like the right fit,” said Ayanian, who received her master’s degree and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

She believes her research will be complementary to the robotics work already underway at USC. Ayanian plans to leverage expertise from the biological and social sciences to build controls that allow for effective robot-robot, and thus human-robot, interaction.

“I want to push the direction of robotics,” said Ayanian, who in 2008 received the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation Best Student Paper Award. “I would love to collaborate with experts in sociology, neurology, biology and user experience. I think this is one of the great things about USC – it is so big and has so many experts in diverse fields.”

One of her first university priorities is to build a new lab at the university focused on automatic robot control solutions. She will use this lab to develop new algorithms for controlling teams of robots, and refine designs so that groups of robots move and behave in ways that are more natural and humanistic.

Ayanian is currently developing an iPad application that will allow users to control groups of robots using multi-touch technology. By simply sliding their fingers across the screen, users will be able to tell hundreds of robots where to go and how to navigate there.

Ayanian “has really taken some abstract mathematical concepts and put a much friendlier face on them,” Ross Knepper, her colleague at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), said. “I can see in the future people using a similar interface when they bring their own robots home. This is how they might program them.”

Knepper, who specializes in robotic manipulation, has worked extensively with Ayanian on solving what they call the “robotics problem,” or how to make machines act intelligently in the world. He said Ayanian makes everything look easy, adding that she can take complex concepts and translate them so others can understand.

“She’s very good at explaining the core ideas in a way that seems natural and easy,” Knepper said. “It shows that she thoroughly understands the material and can really help other people relate to it. I think that is going to make her an excellent teacher as well as an excellent researcher.”

While it may be several years before our world looks like the one portrayed on "The Jetsons," Ayanian believes robots will become an everyday part of our lives.

“The future is robotics everywhere,” she said. “They will be a bigger part of your life than you can really imagine for right now. They will affect the way we build, design and equip the world around us.”