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Making Mr. Robot: Humans still have the edge over machines.

Posted on 09 October 2008

In an age when technology sometimes can seem like a foe, robots are emerging as a friend in need.

Robots played a key role in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. According to the Boston Herald, two Massachusetts robotics firms, iRobot and Foster-Miller, sent a total of seven robots to help rescuers dig out the rubble at the World Trade Center site. The companies also provided engineers and robot handlers to assist.

Far from replacing humans, robots and the robotics industry are giving rise to new areas of job growth. “It is far more than the mechanical aspects usually associated with industrial robotics,” explains Howard Kelley, president of the Sally Corporation in Jacksonville, FL, one of five animatronics companies in the world.

If consumer robots grab public attention, the growth curve for robotics will be tremendous.

The robotics industry includes many disciplines: mechanical, electrical, and software engineers; computer programmers; technologists; research scientists; and installers are but a few. In animatronics, where art and technology merge, the workforce also includes artistic designers, scriptwriters, theater art professionals, sculptors, and others with artistic skills.

Where the Jobs Are
In the current technological climate, job opportunities abound in robotics. Chuck Thorpe, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) says employment in robotics is getting broader. The demand is not only for engineers (electrical, mechanical, computer), he says, but also for people with backgrounds in design, curriculum, and medicine. The field also includes the application fields, such as biology, oceanography, and psychology.

“Robotics is quickly becoming a fusion of classical computer science, classical robotics, and new, leading-edge fields,” adds Illah Nourbakhsh, assistant professor of robotics at CMU. “Human/robot interaction, robot psychology, robot emotional modeling, and computer vision to detect and infer the behavior of people” are some of those new fields, he explains.

David Barrett, vice president of engineering of iRobot Corp. in Somerville, MA, concurs. “Many new applications in the areas of machine vision, behavioral-based control and ‘affective computing’ are just now moving out of the research community and into commercial robotics.” He sees a need for “all technical disciplines from mechanical engineering through computer science and opportunities to create wonderful new interfaces that make interacting with robots easier.”

Toys, Cars, and Beyond
One of the fastest growing fields is speech recognition, says Nourbakhsh. Its application to toys is close to his heart; his lab specializes in toy robots. “Toy developers are picking up (speech recognition), and now automobile companies are picking it up as well.”

Nourbakhsh foresees “significant employment” opportunities in speech recognition in those two markets in the near future. “As robots become more commonplace helpers and entertainers in the home, the growth will be spectacular,” he says. If consumer robots grab the public’s attention, Nourbakhsh envisions the growth curve for robotics “to be tremendous, like the computer.”

Get With the Program
Many technical community colleges offer one- and two-year associate degree programs, which prepare graduates for automation maintenance positions. This work often involves installing new equipment and repairing existing machinery. On the university level, Nourbakhsh advises enrolling in “robotics programs, machatronics programs, and anything interdisciplinary combining any two or three of artificial intelligence, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science.” He notes the following as the best places in the United States:

  • CMU
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Stanford University
  • Georgia Tech
  • University of Southern California
  • UC Berkeley
  • University of Michigan
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Thorpe of CMU says that most researchers start with an undergraduate degree in computer science, physics, or one of the engineering fields. “If you want to apply for a robotics job, you need a strong undergraduate degree,” he says. “If you want to invent new ideas, you need a graduate degree. That’s what it is designed to teach you how to do.”

Whatever school you choose, select one that “has a robust artificial intelligence or robotics group or lab,” advises Barrett of iRobot.

Fun and Profit
The economic news is as encouraging as the employment outlook, even for the beginning roboticist.

The average starting salary for a CMU graduate with a B.S. tops $60,000, says Thorpe. Greater Pittsburgh boasts more than 90 robotics companies. Obviously, he adds, the potential exists for funneling “new ideas out of the university and into the marketplace, and having fun and making a lot of money.” Sounds like a great way to make a living, doesn’t it?

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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Poorvesh Mistry says:

    Hello sir, I believe that what we are right now is due to the change happing in human race since centuries, robotics is a field which is considered into existence from just a century. what we learn (standing, walking, running, jumping etc) is not measured in terms of science, but for robots we have to put it in such terms like center of gravity, inertia, speed, acceleration etc. still we are the brains for robots,
    please visit
    which sets example that now robots can even calculate to balance them selfs, I feel we are safe as far as they stay in our control (fundamentals and laws defined for robotics), the day we let A.I. think for us and them selfs, we would be have Terminators around for the Judgment day….

  2. Mithun says:

    Sir, i am doing my electrical and electronics engineering in India.. Can i know which colleges provide post graduation in Animatronics field..

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