October 17, 2017      

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has announced that Jing Xiao will take over for Michael Gennert in January 2018 as director of the university’s Robotics Engineering Program.

Xiao, currently a professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, will be the second director of WPI’s robotics program, which was launched in 2007. Gennert will continue as a professor of computer science.

Xiao, who holds a doctorate from the University of Michigan, is currently the UNC Charlotte site director for the Center on Robots and Sensors for the Human Well-being. She has been conducting critical research in haptics and real-time adaptive motion planning.

She also served as the program director for the National Science Foundation’s Robotics and Human Augmentation Program between 1998 and 2000.
Before her arrival, Xiao spoke with Robotics Trends about her research, haptic feedback improvements and why romanticizing robotics is sometimes a mistake.

What robotics projects/research are you most proud of from your career?

There are two related themes in my robotics research: one is the focus on “contact sport”, i.e., the contact and interaction between a robot or a part/tool it holds and the environment, and the other is real-time adaptiveness (of a robot) to uncertainty and uncertain changes in an environment based on perception.

Both themes still require a lot of research, but advances are crucial to making robots useful in a wide range of applications and in unstructured, human-centered environments.

How has haptic feedback improved over the years? How can it continue to improve?

Progress has been made both in increasing the quality of haptic feedback, in terms of fidelity and computation speed of haptic simulation, and in increasing the applications of haptic feedback, ranging from virtual training of dentists to vibration of touch screen devices.

To continue improving haptic feedback requires continued advances in both hardware, the haptic devices, and software, the rendering algorithms, as well as creative ideas of applications.

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What area(s) of robotics will benefit most from improved haptics?
Human-robot interaction is key to many robotics applications that require human guidance and intervention. Improved haptics can significantly improve the human experience in tele-operating robots.

What attracted you to WPI’s robotics program?
I am very impressed that WPI’s robotics engineering program was built from the ground up, starting from the undergraduate level and moving up to the masters and the PhD level. It is truly synergistic and one of its kind. This program has a lot of potential to stand out not only in the country but in the world.

From an outsider’s perspective, how strong is Massachusetts’ robotics culture?
Massachusetts has a long tradition of strong robotics culture, characterized by strong robotics research and education in academia, spin-offs, and signature robotics companies grown from spin-offs, such as iRobot and Boston Dynamics. With the growing robotics-related industry, the robotics culture is getting stronger.

What do you hope to accomplish first after taking over at WPI?
With the strong growth of student population in the Robotics Engineering Program, we must expand resources. Faculty hiring will be one of the first major tasks to accomplish.

With the new PracticePoint medical lab set to open in 2018, what medical robotics developments will we see from WPI?
There are already active research and developments in a number of areas, including robot-assisted surgery, image-guided surgery, and assistive robotics for people with disabilities. We expect more progress in those areas and branching out to new research areas.

What inspired you to get into robotics?
I was long intrigued and inspired by the general idea of making machines intelligent and perform tasks usually for us humans.

What advice do you have for people, especially young women, getting into robotics?
Robotics is definitely a very cool field to be in with huge potential. However, one can easily romanticize robotics and then get disillusioned when things don’t progress as fast as initially hoped. Don’t give up.

What I do is to always remember the tangible benefits robotics can bring to our lives and then keep going. Robotics is a highly interdisciplinary field that requires diverse knowledge and diverse talents. I hope to see more people of diverse backgrounds, especially young women, to get into the field.