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New CMU Robotics director says diversity is key to the institute's future

Matthew Johnson-Roberson has been appointed director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University
Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University
Matthew Johnson-Roberson has been appointed director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Matthew Johnson-Roberson, an autonomous vehicle and delivery robot developer, will be the new head of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, the university announced Thursday.

The appointment will see Johnson-Roberson return to the school where he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2005. He cited a class with robotics pioneer William “Red” Whittaker as the origin of his love of robotics.

"It's an honor to come back and work with some of the same people who inspired me," Johnson-Roberson said about returning to CMU. "I couldn’t ask to work with a more talented group of roboticists."

Among Johnson-Roberson’s goals for the institute is bringing in new and diverse voices and ideas. Unique perspectives can generate new ideas about how to solve the world’s problems with robotics, and do it better, he said.

According to Johnson-Roberson, meeting individually with students who haven’t thought about robotics as a career is one way to achieve that.

“[Showing them] you could belong here. There’s a space for you here… and when people do show up, making sure they feel supported,” he said. “Make it a human place. A place where people feel like they have an opportunity to build robots, which is honestly one of the coolest things you could ever hope to do.”

Johnson-Roberson, who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Sydney, is currently an associate professor of engineering at the University of Michigan's naval architecture and marine engineering department as well as the electrical engineering and computer science departments.

He co-directs the University of Michigan’s Ford Center for Autonomous Vehicles and leads the deep robot optical lab. The DROP lab develops underwater robotics for ocean mapping and data collection.

He also co-founded Refraction AI, a delivery robotics company focusing on last-mile logistics. The company’s four-foot-tall robots have been delivering food and other goods to customers in Ann Arbor, Mich. since 2019, and deployed in Austin, Texas earlier this year.

Johnson-Roberson’s appointment to the robotics institute could mean Refraction’s robots will begin to appear on Pittsburgh streets.

“I’m really hopeful!” he said, laughing. “I think that Pittsburgh is an amazing location for those kinds of deployments,” because of the variety of weather and terrain.

Carnegie Mellon University officials cited Johnson-Roberson’s wide-ranging robotics research and impressive resume in the University’s announcement.

"Matt's expansive background and expertise equip him well to lead the development of robotic systems across RI and SCS," said Martial Hebert, dean of the school of computer science. "The Robotics Institute, the School of Computer Science and the entire Carnegie Mellon community are thrilled to welcome Matt back to campus and excited to work with him."

Johnson-Roberson said the sky is the limit when it comes to what kinds of research he will encourage students to pursue.

"We're at a really important inflection point in the trajectory of robotics," Johnson-Roberson said. "It is a larger field. There are more students interested in robotics, and people are building systems that work. We have an opportunity to determine how we want to deploy robotics in the world and how [we can] use that technology to produce the most good."

Johnson-Roberson will replace Srinivasa Narasimhan. Narasimhan has directed the robotics institute since 2019 after Martial Hebert resigned his post to become dean of the school of computer sciences.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.