The Human-Robot Connection

Matthias Scheutz is the inaugural Karol Family Applied Technology Professor
Matthias Scheutz lecture

Matthias Scheutz (second from right) is joined by (left to right) Julia Karol, A04, Trustee Steven Karol, A76, A04P, A13P, and Michelle Karol, A04P, A13P, at his inaugural lecture as the Karol Family Applied Technology Professor.

Trustee Steven Karol, A76, A04P, A13P, has long been intrigued by artificial intelligence, or AI. But he particularly remembers the day he toured the Human-Robot Interaction Lab at Tufts, where a robot was instructed by voice commands to perform simple tasks.

 That the robot followed orders was impressive in its own right. “But then,” recalled Karol, “I was blown away by the fact that the robot instantaneously ‘trained’ a second robot to do the same tasks by sharing its programming. It was a profound experience.”

That startling display of machine learning left such an impression that now, years later, Karol and his wife, Michelle Karol, A04P, A13P, are providing transformative support for research by the lab’s director, Matthias Scheutz. A renowned cognitive and computer science professor, Scheutz is the first holder of the Karol Family Applied Technology Professorship, an endowed position.

The gift reflects Steven Karol’s pride in the School of Engineering, where he previously served on and chaired the Board of Advisors. Scheutz’s stature in his field makes him “a global resource. We are honored to support his work and his passion for engineering as a force for good,” Karol said.

Kyongbum Lee, dean of the School of Engineering and Karol Family Professor, said the Karols’ generous support “makes it possible that research led by Tufts faculty will shape how robots and humans co-exist in the future.”

Scheutz said the gift provides pivotal financial support as the impact of social robots on daily life is rapidly evolving and expanding, enabling him to connect with stakeholders outside Tufts both on the government side as well as from the private sector to engage in conversations about their needs and possible robot solutions.

While his research in artificial intelligence and robotics is broad, he is most excited about his robots’ ability to acquire new knowledge quickly from natural language instructions. Say a robot can prepare pancakes one way but is told to replace regular milk with soy milk. Can it adapt?

“To make such a change is not easy,” said Scheutz. To make a vegan pancake “would require a script representing a skill that’s both accessible and can be modified without negatively impacting other scripts,” he said. “We developed methods for modifying the robot’s knowledge temporarily or permanently on the fly so that the robot can immediately perform the new task without forgetting previously acquired skills.”

While Scheutz is excited about such technical advances, he’s also a voice for raising concerns about the ethical impact of autonomous robots, both at the individual and the societal level. For example: the potential for humans to develop emotional bonds with robots and the possible dangers of increased reliance on AI.

“We need to consider the broad and complex interplay of ethics, technology policy, and social justice, among other factors, as we advance the field. The goal must be to put humans in the center of any technology development,” he said.

Such a thoughtful approach gives Steven Karol confidence that the future of robotics is in good hands at Tufts. There is uncertainty and concern around how humans and robotics will coexist, he said, “but the world needs people like Matthias, grounded in deep knowledge and ethical thinking, leading the way.”