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Stata the Art Robotics

MIT’s funkiest building sparks creative thinking.

The glimmering facade, off-kilter walls, and curving halls of architect Frank Gehry’s Ray and Maria Stata Center were designed in part to foster creativity. Two years after the building’s opening, its large windows and eye-popping colors have spurred some innovative work in robotics.

MERTZ needed 3-D vision to function in the Stata Center. (Credit: Jeff Weber.)

When Lijin Aryananda, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, moved into the Stata Center, her socially interactive robot, MERTZ, had a vision system designed to fixate on bright colors, motion, faces, and skin. This worked fine in her old lab space, which had blackout curtains to minimize the light. But sunlight flooded MERTZ’s new home. The carpet was bright orange, the walls colorful. Even Gehry’s use of wood posed a problem: MERTZ mistook the wood tones for skin. When Aryananda tried to interact with the robot, it would stare at the ceiling, the floor, or a couch across the room. “I quickly found that many components of the vision system just didn’t work anymore,” she says.

[Click here for images of the two robotic devices in the Stata Center.] 

Now she’s given MERTZ simple three-dimensional viewing capabilities so that it doesn’t mistake a distant red wall for a toy within its reach. And she’s endowed it with short-term visual memory: if MERTZ gets distracted while Aryananda is talking to it, the robot will remember she’s there and eventually turn back to her. Aryananda eliminated her brainchild’s tendency to focus on skin as well.

Working in Stata also influenced a group led by Daniela Rus, codirector of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab’s Center for Robotics. Annoyed by the midday glare on their computer screens, the robotics researchers invented an autonomous window shade that can climb along the struts of the lab’s enormous windows, changing its position with that of the sun. Called Shady, it was designed as a team-building exercise – “kind of a fun thing,” Rus says. But the work also led to a much bigger idea.

Rather than move along the stationary window bars, Shady’s inventors wondered, what would happen if the robot moved the bars themselves? A group of Shadys might work in tandem as a robotic construction crew. A Shady at the base of a building in progress could hold a beam vertically, allowing a second robot to climb up and extend its own beam skyward. If each robot could grip multiple steel bars, a group of them could erect a tall structure in minutes. “You can create towers that build themselves, walk, and place themselves in other locations,” says Rus.

This may be a decade away, but Arya-nanda’s work with MERTZ is nearly complete. The robot will spend most of the summer on the ground floor of the Stata Center interacting with passersby, giving MIT’s most eclectic building yet another attraction.