Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

First Person: “EAPSI Program … an Essential Experience”

October 9th, 2011 / in resources / by Erwin Gianchandani

Mike Stilman, Georgia TechEditor’s note: As we’ve previously noted in this space, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is soliciting applications for its 2012 East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students (EAPSI)Mike Stilman — an Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing and Director of the Humanoid Robotics Lab in the Robotics and Intelligent Machines Center — participated in the 2005 EAPSI program, visiting the Digital Human Research Center (DHRC) in Tokyo, Japan, while a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University. Here Mike shares his experiences — and encourages others in computer science (and related fields) to apply.

The NSF/JSPS EAPSI program was an essential experience that contributed to the formation of my identity, my world perspective and my career. I write this to encourage computer scientists, engineers and roboticists to pursue this incredible opportunity offered by NSF. My summer research at the Digital Human Research Center (DHRC) in Tokyo, Japan was a great adventure where I learned to program controllers for humanoid robots, implement my theory on state-of-the-art robot platforms, and explore the world of Japanese robotics research. Furthermore, I learned Japanese culture and made lots of friends and colleagues whom I enjoy spending time with and collaborating with to this day.

At the time, my research focused on the novel domain of Navigation Among Movable Obstacles (NAMO), and I designed/simulated algorithms for robots that would autonomously plan to move furniture out of the way as they navigated a human environment. Dr. Satoshi Kagami and Dr. Koichi Nishiwaki from the Digital Human Lab in Japan attended my conference presentation. My advisor, Prof. James Kuffner introduced me to them since they had worked together on previous projects. The Japanese researchers were excited about my work and I was equally thrilled to learn about theirs. We decided to collaborate and try to implement it on one of the HRP-2 Humanoid Robots — one of only a dozen existing human-scale humanoid robots in the world at the time. With a letter of support from Dr. Kagami, I applied for the EAPSI program to give this a shot.

From the perspective of research, this was a huge experience for me. While I had a strong background in planning, I only knew the basics of control. Dr. Nishiwaki patiently worked with me to understand the control code for humanoid robot walking and manipulation. Together with my friend, Joel Chestnutt, who was also in the EAPSI program, we developed an Augmented Reality system to track the robot and environment objects. I worked closely with the lab researchers to extend my research in planning, advance the most recent results in humanoid robot control and integrate online perception. The collaboration was so tight that Dr. Nishiwaki and I even stayed up nights together towards the end to complete the system and see it in action. Action was what we got. We developed the world’s first humanoid robot that could autonomously move objects out of its way in order to achieve a task-level goal — my dream of NAMO in real life!

Culturally, my experience with EAPSI was equally rich and rewarding. The program itself started in Hayama, with an orientation by Sokendai. Equipped with a basic understanding of Japanese culture and enough vocabulary to take a train or order some food, we were transported to our host families for a brief home-stay. My hosts were Indian-Japanese and they were the most wonderful people. I got a chance to check out the Hayama attractions, eat excellent exotic foods and the younger son actually let me ride his scooter around on some rural streets. This was fun — left-hand traffic! Returning to Tokyo, I explored the enormous modern metropolis through the very intricate and easy to use network of subways and trains. There’s just too much to be said about hanging out in Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akihabara, etc. I spent time with my housemates who were from all different nationalities and slowly picked up Japanese along the way. Language was never really an issue — some combination of English, gestures and my minimal Japanese was always enough to get communication going. Throughout my time in Japan, I also visited Kyoto which is a wonderful historic city. My hosts at the Digital Human Laboratory brought me along to a local robotics conference, the 2005 World Expo in Aichi and even took me with them on their annual laboratory retreat at a hot spring where we shared research results and of course experienced the traditional Japanese public baths. By the end, I was immersed in Japanese culture and really felt part of the Digital Human Lab family.

Since my first EAPSI visit to Japan, I have gone back nearly every year to spend time with friends, collaborate and meet new colleagues. We’ve continued our research and I’m certain that our videos of Japanese humanoids performing new feats and ongoing research projects contributed significantly to my career back in the states as well as set the tone for my own research laboratory. I am eternally grateful to my advisors Prof. Kuffner and Prof. Chris Atkeson for recommending me to apply to the NSF EAPSI program. Furthermore, I can’t begin to thank Dr. Nishiwaki and Dr. Kagami for not only letting me join their research group but working closely with me and bringing me into their family.

In conclusion, the NSF EAPSI program was one of the most wonderful experiences in my life both academically and socially. I wholeheartedly recommend this opportunity to all my students and any student of computer science, engineering and robotics.

Interested in applying? Click here to learn more about the EAPSI program and review application instructions. The deadline is right around the corner — November 9, 2011.

First Person: “EAPSI Program … an Essential Experience”