What Will Robots Do Next?

The future of robotics is on display every year at USC Viterbi School of Engineering during National Robotics Week. That's when about 1,100 visitors came to campus to see research advances made over the past year by robotics professors and their graduate students. Fifteen research labs, four student robotics organizations, two USC Viterbi K-12 outreach programs, plus several discussions (on autonomous cars, stereotypes about who is a computer scientist, and trends on manufac-turing robotics) made for a wealth of learning opportunities. Most of the visitors were K-12 students coming during the school day on field trips, ranging from first graders (St. Odilia School), third graders (Weemes Elementary), to high school (STEM Academy of Boyle Heights). During the quieter afternoon, once the school buses drove students back to their home campus, lab tours consisted of families, industry leaders, education administrators, plus USC students and staff, some with their own children eager to see the robots. 


Compared to earlier years, more robotics labs are now using augmented or virtual reality, 3-D printing, and machine learning. Through reinforcement or machine learning, for instance, robots can learn on their own, which impressed quite a few of the high school students visiting the lab of Professor Francisco Valero-Cuevas, whose research was featured last week on the cover of one of the most prestigious scholarly journals. The social benefits of this research grabbed the attention of the students, as one student voiced the common impression about a “robot that is in the process of being used to help kids of our age walk and reach.” Other children responded to the impact of robots in Professor Maja Mataric’s lab that help children with autism. Robotic devices that work through kinesthetic touch, called haptic technologies, are also new to USC with the arrival of Professor Heather Culbertson.

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Over 40 Ph.D. students discussed their research throughout the day.


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An additional 50 students volunteered to engage visitors.


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Students loved the robotic hand, dis-played by PhD students in Prof. Valero-Cuevas' lab.

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Grad student mentors in the Robotics & Coding Academy showed robots used in local schools.

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Prof. Culbertson's PhD students simulate different types of textures through algorithms.


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Each year, USC's championship VEX U team fascinates students.

When surveyed, the visiting students conveyed increased interest in robotics and engineering as a result of the lab tours:

I learned about robots, and the most fascinating things about engineering, and its wonders. I want to take a class of Robotics, work with Robots, and create complex parts of different sizes in the class. 

“I learned about how the robots worked and also learned a little bit of programming.” 

 “Today I have learned about different robotics projects such as a submarine project that will revolutionize the way that we view marine biology. Today I had also learned about bio-inspired projects such as the robot that learns new traits. To help people with any sort of abnormality, the bio inspired robots will help these people. 

I learned about how much we have evolved in technology.” 


The biggest difference observed this year compared to earlier years is that more students of all ages, from first grade through senior year of high school, participate in robotics in school or afterschool. Given the tremendous need for digital fluency and familiarity with computer science in our society increasingly shaped by algorithms and artificial intelligence, this is a promising trend.


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Prof. Krishnamachari's research in robot swarms.

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Mentors from Prof. Ragusa's Robotics Academy.

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The Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Team.

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