Anca Dragan: the robot teacher


April 16, 2018

Her university has produced 91 Nobel Prize winners, and just around the corner from her workplace, the heart of the digital transformation movement in Silicon Valley thrives. Here, close to San Francisco, is where the future takes shape – and Anca Dragan is playing a significant role in molding it. In Berkeley, at the University of California, the 30-year-old professor leads a research laboratory studying interaction between humans and robots. The Jacobs University graduate is teaching robots to anticipate human actions – and to behave with corresponding prudence.

, Anca Dragan is leading a research laboratory studying interaction between humans and robots. Photo: Noah Berger

What a robot does or doesn’t do is determined by an algorithm. In general, it will follow an instruction and carry out its tasks tirelessly – but only that. Disruptions in the environment or deviations from the predefined task can thus become a problem. In Anca Dragan’s laboratory, the robots are not isolated in their actions, but rather share the environment with people and have to coordinate their actions with them. “We are working on the way cars share the road with human drivers and pedestrians, how robots work at home with us and how mobile robots are able to navigate around us”, she explains.

The ability to communicate is thus a key competence; it is important so that conflicts between people and robots can be avoided. “Conflicts result from a lack of transparency about the other party’s intentions”, says Dragan. She and her colleagues not only want to teach robots to better express their intentions and capabilities, but also to foresee human actions with the help of prediction models for human behavior. A new approach to research goes even further: the robots are no longer being programmed for one specific task, but rather they should be able to recognize for themselves what people want from them, without this being formulated for them in advance.

, Anca Dragan has studied at Jacobs University Bremen from 2006 to 2009. Photo: Noah Berger

Anca Dragan was born in Braila, Romania, and she studied computer science at Jacobs University between 2006 and 2009. “Back then I would never have been able to imagine having the chance to carry out research at one of the best universities in the world. My degree at Jacobs University made this possible for me. I had great teachers and it formed the foundation for my subsequent career.”

It is not only in academic terms that this applies, since she has also kept in touch with many fellow alumni, even though they are spread all over the world. “They have become friends for life – they’re like family to me. There’s something magical about sharing a manageable space like the Jacobs University campus with people from more than 100 nations.” She even meets former professors at conferences from time to time.

In all of this she has been helped by a role model: Aurora Simionescu. The astrophysicist is a fellow Romanian who also studied at Jacobs University and now works as a professor for the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. “She showed me what’s possible and that Jacobs University is a great springboard”, explains Anca Dragan, who moved to the USA after her time in Bremen to complete a doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. At the age of 27 she became a professor at Berkeley in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences.

As a multiple award-winning scientist Anca Dragan has now herself become a role model, particularly for younger women. They are rare in her area of specialization, which is dominated by men. To promote them is important to her. Hence, in Berkeley she gives lectures for women to try and rouse their enthusiasm for artificial intelligence, algorithms and mathematics – but not only that. Anca Dragan also cooperates with schools in the region with the aim of introducing students to the topic, regardless of their gender.

Robotics, she explains, is not about building the next Terminator, but rather developing tools that help people. For this reason, she believes it can’t be right that the developers of these tools come from just a small proportion of the population with limited experience to draw on. The diversity, in terms of gender, race, background and opinion, is central to the work’s success, Anca Dragan explains: “We need the different perspectives.”

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