May 2010 Newsletter

Dear Friends of CITRIS:

We talk to our machines a lot these days, from voice-recognition smartphones and cars to computerized operators that make reservations and report balances. Much of the time they work pretty well. But if you have ever been stuck in an infinite loop with a digital phone tree, you know we have a way to go to bring capable good manners and sympathetic reasoning to our computers and bots.

The two stories in this issue demonstrate significant steps forward for human-machine interfaces. The first piece is about Opinion Space, the product of a collaboration between the Berkeley Center for New Media and the U.S. State Department. The just-launched website is already helping users around the world to brainstorm on the most pressing matters of state. The project invites citizens of all countries to weigh in on questions of immigration, nuclear security, the role of diplomacy, the importance of women’s education in the developing world, and international terrorism.

The online world can be a radically polarizing place. That extreme polarization is too often reflected in today’s politics. Opinion Space, though, keeps the energy high while depolarizing the content. It employs dimensionality reduction algorithms to plot opinions in five-dimensional space and reveal their relationship to one another and to norms. Spending a few minutes on the site, the old dichotomies of left and right, red-state and blue-state begin to break down allowing for a focus on content. The innovative and insightful ideas float to the top, where they are needed.

As one who was not so long ago a single father of three teenagers, I understand the value of depolarizing heated conversations about difficult life challenges. At times, I could have used a few extra dimensions to add nuance to my own familial negotiations, which occasionally seemed driven more by reactionary reflex than a mutual desire to comprehend, let alone to cooperate.

Which leads to the second story, which focuses on UCSC engineer Marilyn Walker’s work seeking new ways to employ some of those expressive reflexes to help machines better communicate with us. A great deal of what we say to each other is expressed not through the informational content of our utterances, says Walker, but through facial expression and body language as well as the linguistic style we adopt when talking. In itself, that may not be news, but systematic study and application of those non-verbal cues in robotics will make news for sure.

Walker is building a core expression program that can easily be plugged into all kinds of human-machine interface programs. But the applications she is developing in Santa Cruz will help bridge the gap between information gatherers and advice givers in the medical field and the people they are trying to help. A sympathetic robot that can read and reflect the personality of a patient will be far better at taking a medical history, say, than one with an indifferent staccato monotone. One application that may be built for cell phones, would help overweight teenagers to exercise by encouraging them to follow a customizable regimen.

Finally, though it does not yet have the nuanced expressions of Walker’s animated characters, a great new robot has just joined us here at CITRIS headquarters in Berkeley. Silicon Valley personal-robot developer Willow Garage has given one of their $400,000 PR2 robots to a team of scientists led by CITRIS-based EECS roboticist Pieter Abbeel to help develop applications for the PR2’s open-source software platform. Abbeel’s proposal included an app that enabled the robot to fold laundry from a pile. By awarding the robots, Willow Garage is seeding an international effort to develop applications that will give the powerful but not-yet-fully-self-actualized robots both helpful skills and marketability; in other words, a solid CITRIS project.

Keep up the good work,

Paul K. Wright,
Director, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute@CITRIS

2010 CITRIS Seed Funding Awards
We are pleased to announce that the seed funding awards for CITRIS have been chosen. The projects this year are from all four CITRIS campuses: 4 from UC Davis (25% of submitted), 4 from UC Santa Cruz (27% of submitted), 7 from UC Merced (64% of submitted), and 12 from UC Berkeley (33% of submitted). Thank you to all who submitted innovative proposals. We look forward to the discoveries and developments that will arise as a result of this round of funding.

CITRIS Big Ideas winners for 2010
This year, CITRIS awarded seven student-led proposals a total of $30,000 in prize money at the April 22 poster session for our annual White Paper competition.

UC Berkeley team wins PR2 Robot
After an intense competition, a UC Berkeley team located on the 7th floor of the CITRIS Headquarters Building was awarded with a PR2 robot. The team, led by Pieter Abbeel, will continue developing open source code for robotics.

Sutardja Dai Hall: An Award-Winning Building
Sutardja Dai Hall, the headquarters building for CITRIS at UC Berkeley, has only been open for one year and has already won several awards.

Recipients announced for BCNM Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Research Grants
UC’s Berkeley Center for New Media announces the recipients of the 2010 Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Research Grants. The grantees are a diverse group of graduate students whose subjects range from public health to videogames.

Dan Kammen appointed first clean energy fellow to Western Hemisphere
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has named Daniel Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley, a Senior Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) Fellow to advise our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere on clean energy issues as of April 15.