Maja Mataric works and resides in Greater Los Angeles, but you might say that she lives in The Future. In her world, robots abound, and they “learn” to do more and more complex, sensitive, “human” tasks every day.

Mataric creates “socially assistive” robots that help victims of strokes, elderly Alzheimer's patients, autistic children and others without physically touching those they are helping.

“These robots provide personalized aid through monitoring, coaching, training and companionship but not through any physical work,” says Mataric, whose busy life includes work as a professor of computer science, neuroscience and pediatrics at USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, as well as director of the Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems. “The goal is to provide fully personalized one-on-one care for millions of people with special health and cognitive needs, who otherwise do not receive that care.”

For instance, a burly, humanoidlike robot moves an extended arm in a series of motions that are copied by a human patient. A miniature robot stands on a desk to lead a little girl through arm motions, then smiles at her. A small robot moves around the floor to help rehabilitation patients, speaking to them, asking: “How many books can you put on the shelf?” and following up with “good job.”

Other researchers diligently develop intelligent robots that can understand various aspects of human-robot interaction through recognition of facial expressions, body movements, posture, speech, nonspeech vocal indicators, gesture and social use of space — called proxemics — and then express the underlying human emotions, in a believable and effective way. But Mataric's own work does not focus on “highly realistic” units. In other words, she's not building C-3PO or Will Smith's nemeses in I, Robot.

“We focus on engaging behavior, not realistic appearance,” she explains. “As for 'reasoning,' A.I. [artificial intelligence] focused on that for many decades. We focus on interaction instead, because it requires an entirely different set of abilities — although, of course, some thinking is involved. Social interaction is a very different — and to me more fascinating — challenge than thinking, per se.”

So just how early in life did Mataric feel the spark of technological curiosity? “I got into robotics toward the end of my college years, which helped me to select my Ph.D. program at MIT,” she says. “I am not one of those people who knew, from childhood, what she wanted to do. I was interested in languages and neuroscience and writing and design, and also had family pressure — the immigrant work ethic — to pursue something employable.”

Mataric points out that today there is only one popular robotics product on the consumer market, the Roomba vacuum cleaner by iRobot.

“There are a few other products, including robotic toys, but we are not yet at the stage where people can pick up a helpful robot at their local store. We should be in the next 15 to 20 years.

“Health care [needs] and aging at home will provide the market niches where consumer robotics will start to boom, because there are so many opportunities to help people in those areas by supplementing human care.”

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