CMU faculty share visions of robots and big data at world economic forum

Several faculty members, students, and staff from Carnegie Mellon University attended the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dailan, China last week. The WEF is a Swiss nonprofit foundation that, according to their website, “engages political, business, academic and other leaders of society in collaborative efforts to improve the state of the world.”

The WEF holds two conferences each year, the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dailan, and the WEF Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland in January. According to the WEF’s mission statement, both conferences attract decision-makers, experts and innovators to “define challenges, solutions and actions, always in the spirit of global citizenship.” Carnegie Mellon University is one out of 25 universities in the world to attend this event, and one out of only 12 universities in the United States. An even more impressive feat is that Carnegie Mellon’s fifteen person delegation — comprising faculty members, students, and staff — is the largest delegation among all universities that attended the conference.

Delegates from Carnegie Mellon included leading researchers in computer science, robotics, human computer interaction, machine learning, and information systems, to name a few. “Carnegie Mellon is always on the cutting edge of technology innovation, particularly technologies that collaborate with people to address the most pressing challenges of our time, so the WEF meetings are natural venues in which to share our ideas and demonstrate our technologies,” said Justine Cassell, Carnegie Mellon’s associate vice provost of Technology Strategy and Impact, in a university press release.

Topics discussed during the conference ranged from issues such as “What if machines outsmart us?” and “decoding cancer” to “What if scientists are the new chefs?” and “What if your mind could be read?” The Carnegie Mellon delegation participated in a variety of these discussions touching on various topics including computer science, machine learning, and robotics.

On the first day of the conference, Carnegie Mellon delegates presented an IdeasLab on “Machine Learning for Health.” In the session they discussed how machine learning can help predict neurodegenerative diseases, prevent epidemics, and aid individuals in the health industry such as doctors and health insurers. Various Carnegie Mellon delegates participated in this discussion, including Andrew Moore, dean of the School of Computer Science; Jason Hong, an associate professor in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute; Tom Mitchell, head of the Machine Learning Department; Daniel Neill, an associate professor of information systems; and Aarti Singh, an assistant professor of machine learning.

Carnegie Mellon also demonstrated advancements in robotics in a variety of presentations, such as in the exhibition “Meet the Robots,” organized by Cassell. In this exhibition, William Whittaker, a Carnegie Mellon professor of robotics, allowed participants of WEF to remotely drive Carnegie Mellon’s Andy Lunar Rover, which resides halfway across the world in West Mifflin, Pa. Ralph Hollis, another professor of robotics, showcased Ballbot, a robot that is similar in size and shape to a human, that moves while balancing atop a bowling-ball-sized sphere.

Cassell also presented “virtual peers,” which are animated video characters that can hold a conversation with students, and have been used to aid autistic children and research the use of vernacular in schools.
Cassell, Whittaker, and Hollis also all participated in a discussion panel on “Robots without Borders,” which focused on the topic of optimizing the incorporation of robotics into society to achieve societal improvements. Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab also presented its Earth Time-Lapse technology, which aims at visualizing massive databases.

Many Carnegie Mellon faculty members were also recognized for their work at this event. Louis-Phillippe Morency, associate professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Language Technologies Institute was recognized as one of this year’s Young Scientists, a title given to leading contributors to science, engineering, or technology under the age of 40. Carnegie Mellon spinoff Neon, which was co-founded by the head of the Department of Psychology Michael Tarr and CEO Sophie Lebrecht, was recognized as one of the world’s 49 most promising technology pioneers.

Conferences such as the WEF’s Annual Meeting of the New Champions allow for leading researchers and innovators from around the world to share ideas and, hopefully, look toward an improved future. Public conference sessions and discussions of this year’s annual meeting are posted on WEF’s official website, and are available for streaming.