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Shah returns to CSAIL

Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory welcomes one of its latest additions (and alumnus): Assistant Professor Julie Shah.
Assistant Professor Julie Shah
Assistant Professor Julie Shah
Photo: Jason Dorfman

Assistant Professor Julie Shah completed her undergraduate, graduate and PhD degrees at MIT, thus when she was offered a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics accepting the job was easy.

“MIT is just one of those places where there’s never a dull day,” Shah says. “I also have wonderful mentors and great collaborators here, so it wasn’t a hard decision.”

After spending the last year consulting for Boeing Research and Technology, Shah will be retuning to MIT this fall to co-teach 16.35: Real Time Systems and Software with Professor Nick Roy. She will also be founding the Interactive Robotics Group at CSAIL, where she will focus on creating algorithms that will allow robots to successfully work alongside people to manufacture planes, explore space and even work in the operating room.

The seed for her lab was planted when Shah created a plan execution system, dubbed Chaski, as part of her PhD thesis. The idea behind Chaski was to give a vague plan to a human-robot team, allowing members to delegate tasks and responsibilities at will, similar to a real human work environment. The system allowed the robot to monitor the actions of its human counterparts and then select its next steps based on what would best support the human’s actions. In her thesis, Shah was able to show that using the Chaski system could reduce human idle time by up to 85 percent as compared to when an individual had to demonstrate tasks step-by-step to robots.

Shah plans to expand the work she began with Chaski at CSAIL, especially when it comes to the application of human-robot teamwork to the American manufacturing industry. At Boeing, she helped develop platforms that will allow human-robot teams to build planes in a cost-effective manner. Recently, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a new national robotics initiative as part of a $500 million plan to increase the efficiency of American manufacturing.

“When you introduce robots into human domains they need to be able to come together and work together as a cohesive team to put these systems together,” Shah says of the challenges of integrating robots into the human workplace. “Robots need to be able to adapt and respond very quickly based on what humans are doing in the environment for safety and efficiency purposes.”

In addition to continuing her collaboration with Boeing, Shah and her students will be commencing this fall on a collaboration with ABB Robotics on developing algorithms that will allow the company’s concept robot FRIDA, a dual-arm manipulator, to work safely and effectively alongside humans in manufacturing and assembly. While Shah has focused extensively on temporal fluid coordination, she will also looking to integrate spatial coordination into her work with robotic planning.

“When you add in the spatial aspect of how arms manipulate in space in close proximity to people it changes the problem a bit and that’s a very interesting research area,” she explains.

Above all, Shah is excited to be back at MIT and eager to begin working with students on human-coordination and the challenges of interactive robotics, such as multi-robot teamwork in uncertain environments.

“Primarily we do algorithms development, but what I love about working with robots is that you get to see those algorithms perform useful things in front of you and really provide value to people,” she says.

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