Chad Jenkins remembers the day Bruske Hall was hardwired to the network. Today, the 1996 Alma College graduate is building autonomous robots that function in human environments.
When Chad Jenkins ’96 peers into the future, he sees a world that is a better place because of robots that improve the quality of life and enhance productivity.
Jenkins is a roboticist. His work and collaborations aim to discover methods for computational reasoning and perception that will enable robots to affectively assist people in common human environments.
Healthcare, environmental infrastructure, education, agriculture and space exploration are among the areas that stand to benefit from advances in robotics technology, he says.
“We all know or have loved ones who live with assistance or who have disabilities,” says Jenkins. “Robots can provide quality-of-life assistance for these individuals. People can provide the human touch, interact personally to stimulate mental capacities and offer assistance as needed, but robots can be programmed to perform the physical tasks that these individuals are unable to do.”
Henry Evans is living proof of Jenkins’ vision.
A former Silicon Valley chief financial officer, Evans suffered a stroke-like attack caused by a hidden birth defect that left him unable to speak or move his limbs. Years of therapy helped him learn to move his head and use a finger — which allows him to use a head-tracking device to communicate with a computer using experimental interfaces.
With the assistance of robots, he can now feed himself, scratch an itch and accomplish household tasks. With the help of Jenkins and his research team, Evans also learned to fly a camera-mounted drone that gives him the ability to view his garden or visit a campus.
“We created the interface for Henry to control a robot simply by his head movements,” says Jenkins. “Giving Henry the ability to move and be independent was extremely inspiring and one of the highlights of my career.”
Jenkins and Evans demonstrated their collaborative work in an inspiring TEDx Talk titled “Meet the Robots for Humanity,” which has, to date, received more than 1.18 million views.
A Passion for Computer Science
Jenkins became aware of Alma because his mother had worked with then-president Alan Stone. He was accepted into Alma as well as several other larger schools, but Alma’s small campus and teaching environment won Jenkins over.
“Computer science was my passion at Alma,” says Jenkins, who doubled majored in mathematics and computer science. He participated in the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest and was one of the first on-air personalities of the new campus radio station WQAC. He also served three years as a resident assistant in Bruske Hall.
“In my senior year, I was the RA of the first quad that was hardwired to the college network,” he says. “That was a time when computing was advancing fast. Alma was moving away from its big mainframe in SAC 110 to the use of desktop computers by students, faculty and staff.”
He and a classmate, Jim Blum ’97, set up the first web server for Alma College.
“The IT department reluctantly gave us the server machine, and we said, ‘Here’s this new thing, the World Wide Web,’” he recalls. “We had the Alma logo and email addresses on it. Neither one of us knew at the time how big the Web would become.
“I was graduating from Alma at a time when computing was exploding,” says Jenkins. “People loved it. 3D video games were just coming out. The Web was emerging. There was an energy about it.”
Jenkins went on to pursue his master’s degree at Georgia Tech, and then his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. He served on the computer science faculty of Brown University from 2004 until 2015, then moved on to the University of Michigan as an associate professor of computer science and engineering.
Today, his research group at UM — the Laboratory for Progress (Perception, Robotics and Grounded Reasoning Systems) — makes autonomous robots to perform tasks that help society and humanity.
“Our goal is to build robots that have the ability to interact with objects in a common human environment, such as to make meals, to put groceries away, to sort objects in a bin,” he says. “It is goal-directed manipulation and navigation.”
The Future of Robots
Will future society be better because of robots? Jenkins enthusiastically answers yes, particularly in fields where human capital is lacking.
“In education, there are ways to use robots to customize learning and complement human teachers,” he says. “Robot drones can be used to inspect the roads, highways and bridges that make up our infrastructure. Robots will be vital for space exploration where human space travel is not practical. And with the growing aging baby-boomer population, robots can provide healthcare and quality-of-life assistance.”
Some futurists express concern that robotic automation will replace jobs and people. Jenkins remains cognizant of this viewpoint; however, his hope is that robots will enhance production and quality-of-life, while opening up countless avenues for future job growth in new, potentially undiscovered fields.
“There are many ways in which we can use robotic technology in the right way to help society,” Jenkins says.
Jenkins has received several recognitions for his research. He was a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for his work in physics-based human tracking from video. His work also has been supported by Young Investigator awards from the Office of Naval Research and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research as well as a career award from the National Science Foundation.