Robot design awarded

A vision is slowly becoming a reality for an assistant computer science professor.   President Barack Obama named Professor Josh Bongard one of the 94 recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for his research involving intelligent robot design on Sept. 26.   Bongard, who works in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, was one of 21 nominees presented by the National Science Foundation. The $500,000 award will help fund his research over the next few years, according to University Communications.   With nature as his blue print, Bongard said his research focuses on building robots with optimal neurological structures. His specialty is using physiological evolution in animals to inspire better design.   “[His research] can be broken down into two broad questions: How can we automatically design a robot with little human intervention, and how can we automatically create a model of a physical system?” according to Bongard’s website.   Bongard’s approach to answering the first question involves a concept known as evolutionary computation.   “My PhD research [uses] a computational search process to repeatedly test our different robot designs in a virtual environment,” he said.   In trying to apply the appropriate dynamics of biological evolution to his own synthetic designs, he has developed software that generates virtual experiments that reveal hidden, internal information about the system, Bongard said.   The algorithm responsible for this innovative system is called Estimation-Exploration Algorithm, or EEA, he said.   Bongard said that he faced some challenges when creating his design.   “It’s very difficult to give the computer a way to measure how well a robot is doing at the desired task,” he said.   Bongard said that his technical background was what inspired him to build these machines.   “I was always fascinated by the staggering complexity we see in biological organisms and was particularly interested in biomechanics,” he said. “I also loved how computers could be programmed to do just about anything.”   I have always been mystified as to why we did not have robots in society, Bongard said.   “[I would like to see] machines that lie somewhere between computers and animals, running around in our everyday world,” he said. “I hope that my work, in some small part, contributes [to] bringing such creatures into existence.”   Bongard is only one of two recipients of the PECASE award in UVM history, in which its mission is to honor scientists and engineers who demonstrate considerable achievement early in their careers.    “It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers, careers that I know will not only be personally rewarding but also invaluable to the Nation,” President Obama said in a White House press release.   Bongard said his research has been featured in Wired magazine, the Boston Globe, The Voice of America, Popular Science and other publications.   He also received a fellowship from Microsoft Research in 2007 for his work related to self-healing robots and MIT named him as one of the world’s top innovators under 35, according to University Communications.   Bongard said he plans to use some of the $500,000 to help his PhD student Josh Auerbach in his research.     “Josh is investigating how evolution can change not just the brains of our virtual robots, but also their bodies,” Bongard said. “Some of the funds will also go toward supporting the Vermont Advanced Computer Center (the VACC), which is UVM’s supercomputer: we run most of our simulations on the VACC.”   In the meantime, Bongard will go to Washington, D.C. Oct. 13-14 to receive the award.   Bongard said that his reaction to winning this award was surprise and happiness.   “[I was] stunned, to the say the least,” he said. “After looking over the work of the other recipients, the shock is being replaced with a feeling of gratitude that my work is considered among such august company.”