Maja Mataric is a robotics powerhouse and, when she's not inspiring the next generation of engineers, she's working on a series of robots that could very well change the lives of the people who use them. The USC professor has a lot of titles: Chang Soon-Shiong chair in the Computer Science Department, Neuroscience Program and the Department of Pediatrics. She also co-directs the school's Robotics Research Lab, is the Vice Dean for Research at the Viterbi School of Engineering and is the founding director of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center. She's also the author of "The Robotics Primer" and the recipient of numerous awards, including a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
Dr. Mataric is developing robots that will be useful in healthcare, robots that provide social interaction for everyone from children to the elderly. "Socially Assistive Robots" (SAR) are able to tend to the needs of people in a way that may not be possible for human caregivers to do. Recently, USC co-produced a short with the Autism Society of America based on Mataric's work. The film called "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth," depicts a young autistic boy who learns to communicate with his classmates through the assistance of a robot named Kiwi. Using SARs to help children with autism has become a big part of Mataric's research. In fact, her USC team has been preparing to embark on a study in connection with a team from Yale to further explore the subject. SARs will be placed with families who have autistic children for one month, during which time the researchers will observe how robots can be used in different situations. Mataric says that the "lack of accessible, trained and affordable" help for kids with autism, inspired her. Robots could assist families, but the challenge, she noted, is that autism affects people differently, so the SARs have to be able to handle individual situations as well as grow with the child.
The high cost of medical care has, in part, fueled Mataric's work. For someone on the autism spectrum, that could head over a million dollars during the person's lifetime, according to Time Magazine. Alzheimer's Association research has found that for a person with Alzheimer's Disease, long term care can run close to $100,000 a year. Mataric says that her robots are intended for use in situations where hiring caregivers may be out of economic reach.
Mataric's robots look like whimsical toys, and that's part of the point. In 2010, she told L.A. Weekly that her concern is with how the robots interact with humans, as opposed to whether or not they look human. Their playfulness is, in a way, indicative of their usefulness. Fox News recently reported on Ivey, a robot that helps young patients at Children's Hospital cope with procedures that require IVs. Depending on the way the robot is programmed, it can either keep the child occupied with other subjects or gently coax them through the process. Meanwhile, Scientific American took a look at a robot named Spritebot that engages the elderly in game play with younger generations. That's leading into a study of how robots can help older people in terms of health maintenance.
SARs have been in the works for a long time. When The New Yorker ran a feature on Mataric's work in 2009, she had already been working on the project for several years and was looking at how the robots could be used to assist stroke patients. There were a lot of issues to consider, and the work has required experts with varied medical backgrounds to ensure that the robots could truly be helpful to the patients. Mataric teamed up with Paolo Pirjanian to form Embodied, a company that specializes in putting SAR technology to commercial use.
But, there's still a lot of work to be done, not only in Mataric's area of expertise, but also in engineering on the whole. Mataric has been active in encouraging more women to study and pursue engineering. In 2015, Christian Science Monitor reported that the freshman class at USC's Viterbi School of Engineering was 37% female, a very high number for the subject. At that time, Mataric was also working on a contest called "The Next MacGyver," where aspiring television show creators were tasked with pitching ideas that put female engineers in the center of the story.
Whether she's working on robots or with students, Mataric is coming up with solutions to make the future better for a lot of different people.
This article was originally published on August 23, 2017.