Alan Wagner: Helping Robots and Humans Communicate [Inventor Interview]

Georgia Tech Regents professor Ronald Arkin (left) and research engineer Alan Wagner look on as the black robot deceives the red robot into thinking it is hiding down the left corridor. (GT Photo: Gary Meek)

Georgia Tech Regents professor Ronald Arkin (left) and research engineer Alan Wagner look on as the black robot deceives the red robot into thinking it is hiding down the left corridor. (GT Photo: Gary Meek)

Can you give us some background on yourself, who you are, what you currently do, etc?

My name is Alan Wagner. I hold a PhD in Computer Science from Georgia Tech with a concentration in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics, an MS from Boston University in Computer Science and BA from Northwestern University in Psychology.

How did you get involved in robotics?

My interest in robotics and AI began while I worked as a part of the research and development team at MIT’s portion of the Human Genome Project. During my work at MIT, the team needed someone to figure out how to create a robotic system capable of adding purification chemicals to plates containing DNA. The system was to utilize a large robotic arm that manually moved these plates around and several smaller liquid handling robots. I spent the next year building and refining the system. The work was exciting and challenging and moved me to pursue formal training in AI and robotics. Moreover, the study of AI has allowed me to more deeply explore and combine two academic passions of mine—psychology and computer science.

Describe the project you’re working on.


I am currently a research scientist at Georgia Tech Research Institute working on the development of a computational framework for social interaction. The framework uses elements of game theory and a social psychological theory called interdependence theory to, hopefully, develop robots which are more capable of interaction with humans in a wide variety of contexts. As part of this framework I have developed algorithms that should allow a robot to determine if someone is trusting them, if they should trust someone else, use stereotypes to broadly characterize an interactive partner, and develop long-term models of the people the robot interacts with. I am currently in the process of creating a software library which could be used by the scientific or robotics community in general, to create more interactive robots. Ideally, these communities would help develop the library by adding to and refining it.

Why is it important that we make things and work on projects?

Allow me to answer a related question, why is research and science important? Science and research, even with respect to unpopular questions, is important as it expands humanity’s knowledge in unpredictable ways. Results from one project may inform other, seemingly unrelated projects in important ways. My approach to creating social robots draws on work completed in social psychology. It is unlikely that the psychologists that developed ever imagined that they would be applied to robotics and AI. Yet, not only does this work in psychology and suggest new avenues to pursue for AI, it also has the potential to highlight and inform areas in psychology by creating machines of limited intelligence.

What message do you have to aspiring engineers?

I, personally, think two characteristics critical for success as an engineer and a scientist are 1) hard work and 2) focus. Creating novel technologies and areas of science is not easy, regardless of one’s innate intelligence. Time, dedication, diligence, and luck are all precursors. But, having a vision and working hard to ensure that that vision becomes a reality demands dedication. Focus is similarly important. Often when one reaches a point of difficulty there is a natural tendency to look for a distraction. It is precisely at this time, however, that the scientist and/or engineer must maintain maximal focus, working through the problem and continuing until a solution is found.

Favorite invention you’ve seen recently?

The most exciting invention that I’ve seen recently has been the different methods that astronomers and astrophysics have created for determining the existence of planets. I remember as a child reading that there were no known planets outside our solar system. It amazes me that hundreds of planets have now been observed and that we can begin to imagine what these planets look like. Very exciting.

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