USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Spotlight on X-STEM Speaker Dr. Hod Lipson

X-STEM – presented by Northrop Grumman Foundation and MedImmune – is an Extreme STEM symposium for elementary through high school students featuring interactive presentations by an exclusive group of visionaries who aim to empower and inspire kids about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). These top STEM role models and industry leaders are sure to ignite your students’ curiosity through storytelling and live demonstrations.

Our spotlight on our X-STEM Speakers continues with Robotics Engineer Dr. Hod Lipson from  Cornell University’s Computational Synthesis Lab (CCSL) at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Ithaca, N.Y

Hod Lipson

Hod Lipson is noted for bringing biologically-inspired approaches to the study of robotics – all in an effort to answer what he believes to be two great challenging questions in engineering: “First, can we design machines that can design other machines, and second, can we make machines  that can make other machines?” he asks.

Both of these questions, Hod contends, lie at the crux of understanding the engineering process itself, and science’s ability to design, make and maintain complex machines, like robots, in the future.

Biological life itself, he says, has answered many of these questions better than the best teams of human engineers ever could  –“which is why I use biologically-inspired approaches in my work, as they bring new ideas to engineering and new engineering insight into biology.”

Hod is director of Cornell University’s Computational Synthesis Lab (CCSL) at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Ithaca, N.Y. He has led work in areas such as evolutionary robotics, multi-material functional rapid prototyping, machine self-replication and programmable self-assembly.

“In robotics, I am specifically interested in the questions of how we can make machines more adaptive to the environment, to other machines and to changes in themselves, such as system failures,” Hod explains. Robotic systems today are superhuman in their accuracy, in their speed, in their ability to work 24/7 in hazardous environments, he says.” But, their inability to adapt to new situations is really their weak point. In contrast, biology is very good at adaptation. As robotic environments and tasks become more complex, it will eventually boil down to adaptation, which is highly important to the sustained operation and long-term viability in robots.”

In exploring these biologically-inspired questions in robotics, what has this taught Hod about humans and our own evolution?

“When you study robotics, it forces you to rethink, in a very quantitative way, the attributes we hold close and consider unique in our definition of what it means to be human,” he says. “For example, what is creativity? If machines can create new things and ideas that infringe on patents  (which humans have traditionally defined as being creative), what does that mean about creativity?”  Similarly, he says, when we have computers that can generate experiments and ask questions, what does that mean about curiosity?

“When you actually work with robots trying to emulate these very characteristics, it forces you to think about these traits in a very precise and quantitative way. Ultimately, I think it leads to deeper questions and better understanding of these concepts.”

Hod received his Ph.D. from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in 1999, and continued on for post-doctoral work at Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

At Cornell, in addition to directing the Computational Synthesis Lab, he also serves on the faculty of Computing & Information Science and is part of the department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering. Before joining academia, he spent several years as a research engineer in the mechanical, electronic and software industries.

Where does he see innovation in robotics going in the next 100 years?

We are heading toward increased automation, he says, particularly in the design of robots — enabling us to one day make machines that are capable of making other machines. “I definitely see an acceleration of these kinds of technologies. I also foresee more automated manufacturing and personal fabrication taking over, making it possible for machines, such as 3-D printers, to be used to fabricate things of increasing complexity at home and on-demand, replacing many traditional manufacturing technologies. This combination of robotic design and robotic manufacture is going to be one of the profound changes that we will see as early as the next couple of decades.”

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