Speaker Insight Series: Julie Shah

Humans versus robots; man verses his own creation. It’s one of the most well-explored power struggles we know of. And as robots increasingly become part of our daily lives, it’s one that is only gaining ground in our social consciousness. We’ve heard both sides of the debate, from those claiming robots can help us to others saying they’ll lead to our own demise.Julie Shah

But what if the conversation didn’t rely on this “us versus them” binary? Fall 2015 speaker Julie Shah is proposing (and proving) that thinking of people and robots together as a team is the best way toward progress. The collaboration between people and robots can be improved upon, but the first step is moving away from making this an either/or choice.

Julie, an associate professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, leads the Interactive Robotics Group of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory there. Her work has been fueled by the understanding that machines are good at things individual humans are not—and vice versa. For example, machines are often better at solving complex optimization problems, but we don’t have a replacement for human creativity.

Right now, we designate certain jobs for people and certain jobs for robots, with little to no crossover. The primary issue with this division is that machines will only solve the problem you define for them.Oftentimes this means that using a robot to fulfill a certain role will also lead to a stagnation of innovation for processes related to that role. Humans, on the other hand, are uniquely good at imagining new approaches, and at finding a way forward when no option seems to be a good one. 

However, what if people and robots could work side-by-side? If we could find an effective way to blend the unique decision-making strengths of humans and machine, we could transform human capability across countless industries. This means Robots would have to be seamlessly integrated into human teams and would learn the most if they worked with top workplace performers. This also means that they would need to have decision-making processes that are similar to our own.

But is this possible?

On the TEDxCambridge stage, Julie will discuss how she’s creating artificial intelligence algorithms that learn from observations of human teamwork behavior. Her aim is to achieve full human potential through smart machines that learn from us to support and augment our decision-making—not work against us.