CIFellow Spotlight: Alexis Block – Mobile Social- Physical Human-Robot Interaction and Embodiment
CIFellow, Alexis E. Block began her CIFellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles in September 2021. Block is mentored by Veronica J. Santos, Director of the UCLA Biomechatronics Laboratory, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and the school’s Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and Faculty Affairs. Prior to beginning her CIFellowship, she received her Dr. sc. from ETH Zurich where she was a part of a joint program called the Max Planck ETH Center for Learning Systems. Block recently won the Otto Hahn Medal from Germany’s Max Planck Society for her dissertation work in human-robot interaction and the development of the “HuggieBot” which you can read about here.
The remainder of this post is written by Alexis E. Block
Current Research: Mobile Social-Physical Human-Robot Interaction and Embodiment
An epidemic of loneliness existed before COVID-19, especially among teens and older adults, due to social isolation and the resulting lack of social touch and interactions. This isolation led to depression, suicide, and self-harm. The COVID-19 pandemic compounded this issue with more people isolating than ever before (immunocompromised individuals, older adults, and other risk categories). It will take time before these groups can re-enter society safely. At the same time, friends, family, and medical staff struggle to balance their health with patients’ need for clinical and affective touch. I am motivated to find a way to help bridge the gap between staying safe and providing people with the beneficial affective touch we need to feel socially connected.
A critical factor for successful human dexterous manipulation is a sense of touch, which is even more true for robots. Unfortunately, too often, robots lack this essential modality. My current research involves creating novel tactile sensors for simple grippers already incorporated into commercially available robotic systems to provide them with this beneficial perception capability during semi-autonomous and teleoperated use. Through hardware and software upgrades to “Stretch,” a human-safe co-robot created by Hello Robot, I am working to create a low-cost, easily deployable, teleoperated system that allows human operators to interact fully and feel like an equally embodied agent from anywhere in the world. Specifically, my work seeks to enable medically vulnerable populations to engage in community activities, allow remote workers to perform physical, dexterous tasks from anywhere in the world, and enable loved ones to provide affective touch to infected and medically vulnerable individuals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made tangible the struggles of maintaining physical distance from friends, family, and co-workers for the entire world. These struggles, a daily reality for many people long before the pandemic hit, are now struggles for everyone. When a “new normal” returns to the world, medically vulnerable populations will continue to be left out of attending school and other enriching community activities. This work can potentially improve the quality of life for such individuals and the quality of work.
My research is generally focused on human-robot interaction. The types of interactions I’m most interested in have both a social and a physical component. I was recently awarded an Otto Hahn Medal, which is the highest award by the Max Planck Society for outstanding scientific achievement by junior scientists, for my dissertation work on HuggieBot, the first human-sized interactive hugging robot with visual and haptic perception. In addition, I recently won the Best Demo Award (with co-authors) at the 2022 EuroHaptics Conference for my Hands-On-Demonstration, “HuggieBot: A Human-Sized Haptic Interface.”
“I want to thank CRA, CCC, and NSF for this fellowship opportunity to support my postdoc. Not only have I been able to pursue independent research interests, but I have gained experience in guest lecturing and mentoring students at various educational levels ranging from high school, undergraduate, Master’s and Ph.D., many of whom are under-represented in computer-science and engineering. I’m also getting the experience and opportunity to serve the robotics community through organizing the Southern California Robotics Symposium (https://www.scr.ucla.edu), which is taking place at UCLA on September 22-23, 2022. Finally, I’m excited to be applying for faculty positions this fall!” – Alexis E. Block