Programming Machines That Work


Dan Koditschek

Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor





Robotics is a fledgling discipline concerned with programming work: that is, specifying and controlling the exchange of energy between a machine and its environment. Because our understanding of how to do this is still quite rudimentary, the best progress in the field has come from a mix of inspired building and formal analysis. For more than a  decade, my students and I have pursued such an agenda,  building robots whose controllers drive the coupled robot-environment state toward a goal set and away from obstacles. The talk reviews our progress to date: what sort of “programs” do we know to build, with what theoretical guarantees, and with what empirical success?


Because animals exhibit so many of the capabilities we would wish to imbue in our robots, it seems plausible that useful inspiration may be gained from biology. A second theme of the talk concerns the benefits we have enjoyed from a close collaboration with biomechanists over the last few years. In particular, our hexapod, RHex, built to embody the essential biomechanical principles of animal runners, exhibits mobility superior to any previously documented autonomous programmable machine. The example of RHex serves well to illustrate some of the important concepts from biology that hold significant promise for the future of robotics, among these being the confluence of form and function; the tradeoffs between central and peripheral and between feedback and feedforward control implementations; and the allure and present limitations of “evolutionary” thinking.



Short Biography:


Daniel Koditschek received his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Yale University in 1983 where he served on the faculty until moving to the University of Michigan a decade later. He is presently a Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science with a joint appointment in the AI lab and Control Systems lab.


Koditschek's research interests include robotics and, generally, the application of dynamical systems theory to intelligent mechanisms.   For over a decade, he and his students have pursued the general problem of programming work & commanding the exchange of energy between a machine and its environment so as to achieve a novel goal expressed in some abstract terms. They attempt to integrate tools and concepts from dynamical systems theory with ideas from computer science in building physical robots and mechanisms that illustrate fundamental challenges and opportunities.


A continuing gulf between the aspirations and achievements of robotics suggests the potential value of borrowing from biological solutions to this problem, and Koditschek's recent research incorporates a growing involvement with the life sciences. His archival papers have been published in a broad spectrum of journals ranging from the Transactions of the American Mathematical Society through the Journal of Experimental Biology, with a concentration in several of the IEEE and ASME Transactions. Various aspects of this work have received mention in general scientific publications such as Scientific American and Science as well as in the popular and lay press such as The New York Times and Discover Magazine. Koditschek is a member of the AAAS, AMS, ACM, IEEE, MAA, SIAM, SICB and Sigma Xi.