2012 IEEE Robotics and Automation Award

August 2012
By Bryan Bergeron

The field of robotics wouldn’t be where it is today without the work of bright, dedicated scientists and engineers. The best of the best contributors to robotics are recognized by the annual IEEE Robotics and Automation Award.

The 2012 award went to Bernard Roth, Professor of engineering at Stanford University, for “fundamental contributions to robot kinematics, manipulation, and design.” Impressive jargon, but this doesn’t say much about Professor Roth and his real part in making robotics what it is today.

According to Dr. Roth, he started out as an engineer interested in kinematics — the study of motion — and was talented at creating machines. One of the pioneers of the AI community at Stanford — the late John McCarthy — wanted a physical means of explaining his theories but had no experience building things. Roth and McCarthy began collaborating and the rest, as they say, is history.

I asked Dr. Roth to share his greatest achievement in robotics, expecting that he’d perhaps mention an algorithm or platform design. Instead, I was surprised to learn that when he first entered the field, it was full of one-offs — an arm here, a platform there, etc. — and that the creations were built without a theoretical basis. Dr. Roth managed to create the science of robotics — that is, to define the theoretical underpinnings of robotics that applied across all platforms and designs. He laid the foundation for manipulation, grasping, and other repeatable robotic operations we take for granted today.

When I asked Dr. Roth to speak to the future of robotics, he first went back in time, and reminded me that when robotics first emerged in the public arena the fact that they did anything at all was amazing, regardless of the robot size or complexity. Today, robots perform tasks elegantly, and we’ve come to expect this elegance. For the future, Dr. Roth envisions increased miniaturization, even more elegance, and more integration into everyday life in subtle ways. Eventually, he sees robotics disappearing into ubiquity.

As a career choice, Dr. Roth is bullish on robotics. He sees ever-expanding horizons without the dead ends common to other older and established fields. Now is an excellent time to enter the field because the horizons are unlimited. I share Dr. Roth’s enthusiasm for the future of robotics, as I’m naturally drawn to open-ended possibilities. Whether you’re aiming for a degree in robotics or simply to get that carpet crawler kit working, we all owe Dr. Roth a round of applause for helping take robotics out of science fiction and into the world of engineering and hard science. SV


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