College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Computing researchers teach robots manners


Robots can vacuum floors and move boxes around warehouses, but they have a few things to learn when it comes to manners, and Ioannis Karamouzas of Clemson University wants to teach them.

Karamouzas, an assistant professor in the School of Computing, won’t be sending the robots to their room or taking away privileges, as one might an unruly child. For the robots, he will be developing new algorithms and navigation techniques.

Ioannis Karamouzas

“The idea is to have more intelligent robots that are cognizant of their surroundings and to help robots make decisions similar to what humans do,” Karamouzas said. “We could actually use those robots, and they would be part of our everyday lives.”

Karamouzas is launching his project after receiving a $501,800 CAREER award from the National Science Foundation.

The research focuses on helping indoor, mobile robots coexist with humans in populated areas, such as homes and workspaces. He also plans to visit a number of K-12 schools across South Carolina to expose students to robotics, a step toward creating a college-going culture in economically disadvantaged areas and drumming up interest in STEM careers, particularly among groups underrepresented in STEM fields.

Amy Apon, the C. Tycho Howle Director of the School of Computing, said the award will support Karamouzas as he conducts cutting-edge research and advances robotics education.

“CAREER awards are highly competitive grants that go to some of the nation’s brightest junior faculty members,” she said. “This is a well-deserved honor that positions Dr. Karamouzas to build a foundation for a career that integrates research and education. I offer him my deepest congratulations.”

The core problem Karamouzas is addressing is that robots don’t have the decision-making skills that humans do.

For example, when two people are trying to pass through a doorway at the same time, they will rely on subtle and overt cues to decide who goes first. That often doesn’t happen with robots, Karamouzas said.

“Robots care about themselves,” he said. “They try to go about their business, which is fine, but they don’t even care about the robot next to them. All of a sudden, they clog the doorway and they cannot do anything.”

To teach the robots a better way, Karamouzas will be drawing from his experience in simulating human crowds, including pedestrians, and how they interact with each other, avoid collisions and plan their paths.

“All of these techniques can translate to some degree to robots,” he said.

The project comes with five years of funding for a graduate student to assist with research.

Also as part of the project, Karamouzas has developed an education plan that includes new rootics courses and new opportunities for undergraduates to study in his lab over the summer as part of a National Science Foundation program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates.

Karamouzas said the diversity of research at the University, especially in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, makes it an excellent place for his work.

“There are so many smart people working in areas related to what I’m proposing,” he said. “That opens doors for collaboration in general research opportunities with faculty and students across the college. Also, we have really smart and eager undergraduate students, and I’m pretty sure they are excited to work with robots.”

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