What to Expect When You Are Expecting Robots – The Future of Human-Robot Collaboration


A year ago, the occasional robot seen stocking groceries or wandering the hallways seemed like a novelty. But COVID-19 has brought a new need for transporting things safely, getting groceries and other essentials delivered to our doorstep, sanitizing our offices and schools in between shifts, or even driving us to work. Of course, many people depend on these jobs to earn a living. Our governments have a responsibility to make sure they receive economic relief and have opportunities to generate income. But amid a deadly pandemic, no one should have to choose between working and getting infected. We have spent decades honing the technology for robots to perform in these new applications. Now it’s time to get serious about what it will take to integrate them into our society. Hundreds of robots blanketing your city could be a dangerous prospect, especially if they don’t understand the rules we all follow that make those spaces navigable and safe.

This talk will explore the ways robots deployed our roads, sidewalks, offices, and in homes will compel us to rethink the role of technology in society—from the practical level, such as figuring out how robots will deal with bystanders as they make their way through our neighborhoods, and the need for new human and robot languages and norms, to more philosophical issues, especially navigating the tension of how these technologies will differentially impact groups in society, and the role of public-private partnerships in ensuring safe autonomous robots in society.


Julie Shah is an Associate Professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and leads the Interactive Robotics Group of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Shah received her SB (2004) and SM (2006) from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, and her PhD (2010) in Autonomous Systems from MIT. Before joining the faculty, she worked at Boeing Research and Technology on robotics applications for aerospace manufacturing. She has developed innovative methods for enabling fluid human-robot teamwork in time-critical, safety-critical domains, ranging from manufacturing to surgery to space exploration. Her group draws on expertise in artificial intelligence, human factors, and systems engineering to develop interactive robots that emulate the qualities of effective human team members to improve the efficiency of human-robot teamwork. In 2014, Shah was recognized with an NSF CAREER award for her work on “Human-aware Autonomy for Team-oriented Environments," and by the MIT Technology Review TR35 list as one of the world’s top innovators under the age of 35. Her work on industrial human-robot collaboration was also recognized by the Technology Review as one of the 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2013, and she has received international recognition in the form of best paper awards and nominations from the International Conference on Automated Planning and Scheduling, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the IEEE/ACM International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, the International Symposium on Robotics, and the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

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