Head of the robot revolution

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Greg Chirikjian, center, helps students build a self-replicating robot. (Johns Hopkins University)

Greg Chirikjian

National Science Foundation

Smart cars, agriculture drones and intelligent devices that assist the elderly in their homes are all part of the “robot revolution” — and the focus of Greg Chirikjian’s day job as program director of the National Science Foundation’s National Robotics Initiative.

A professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University for the last 23 years, Chirikjian was appointed in September 2014 to a rotation at NSF, where he spends much of his time leading a board that doles out funding for robotics research. He continues to conduct his own research at his home university, exploring topics like co-robotics, which he described as “robots and humans working together to achieve some useful goals.”

Working at NSF lets him “see the broader view of the world” of robotics, Chirikjian said. Researchers send proposals to his NRI panel — which includes members of NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Agriculture Department and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — before they’re “cherry picked” for funding, depending on agency mission.

Chirikjian loves the ability to “be in the middle of things and see what’s hot,” he said.

While most of his job is “making sure the best quality work gets funded,” he also saves time to get hands on with the assistive machines. His interests lie in teams of modular robots that can analyze and repair one another.

Chirikjian dismisses the idea that robots will someday steal the jobs of humans or, worse, outsmart them.

“The robot can amplify the capabilities of the human and we need that amplification if we’re going to compete with other countries where the cost of labor is lower,” he said.

And he’s seen a massive transformation in the production of robots, particularly in the shrinking of critical components that power them. That leads him believe we’ll see more of them.

“I’ve seen in the last few years a real sea change, and to me it looks like robotics is at the tipping point,” Chirikjian said. “In five to 10 years from now one could see robotics everywhere.”

Though Chirikjian’s rotation at NSF will end in September, he will continue as a consultant training his replacement through the fall while he returns full time to Johns Hopkins.

— Billy Mitchell