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Campus Q&A

Dr. Andrew Williams discusses how the power of robotics and artificial intelligence can improve the world.

Williams, Grad ’95, is John P. Raynor, S.J., Distinguished Chair and director of the Humanoid Engineering and Intelligent Robotics Lab in the College of Engineering. His current research focus is on using those technologies to address childhood obesity.

MM: You began using robots as a teaching tool early on. Why robots?

AW: Before I became a professor, I wanted to learn more about software but also artificial intelligence, which is getting a computer to think, reason, act and learn like a human being. When I became a faculty member, I became fascinated with using robotics as a teaching tool. Robotics is hands-on, and it provides a way to keep students who have different learning styles engaged.

MM: Aren’t robots just toys?

AW: In 2007, Bill Gates wrote an article in Scientific American titled “A Robot in Every Home.” I believe we’re not far from the day when there will be a robot in every home and every person will have a personal robot.

MM: Why focus on childhood obesity?

AW: Marquette students always want to focus on doing something to make the world a better place. I was thinking about how robots could be used to solve a social or health problem. A recent study from the University of Washington says, globally, obesity is a bigger health crisis than hunger and is the leading cause of disabilities.

MM: How can a robot fight childhood obesity?

AW: Kids think of robots as toys. We can leverage that idea of having fun. We have a prototype robot that can teach a student how to do pushups and leg stretches and sit-ups and other physical activity. Then we’ve taken the NIKE+ Fuel Band  which is an accelerometer that measures physical activity, calories, number of steps  and we’re using it to gauge the effectiveness of the human-to-robot interaction. We look forward to seeing the results and then improving the robot algorithms and trying this technology out in the community. There isn’t anyone else doing what we are with robots and wearable technology.

MM: What research is next for you?

AW: I’m interested in robot ethics and how to help our society develop policies to ensure robots will be used ethically to benefit people. This issue has been highlighted with the use of drones, which are human-controlled robots that are being used for national security. There are philosophical, technical and moral issues that need to be addressed as these robots become more sophisticated and intelligent. I also want to make sure there is an ethical voice for minorities and under-resourced communities related to robotics. I want Marquette students to be part of the next generation of technical leaders who are thinking about ethical concerns related to new technology to promote policies that are beneficial to everyone. JMM

Blackmoney.com named Williams one of its 50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology.

Andrew Williams offers more insights in his book, Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives, and the blog on his website, andrewbwilliams.com.


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