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Hamilton's Mr. Roboto


Steve Cunden ’18 has an unusual lab partner this summer. Baxter is pretty quiet and lacking personality, but he is very intelligent. Cunden is an intern at TechBridgeWorld lab at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, and Baxter, his partner, is a robot.  TechBridgeWorld, founded by Mary Bernardine Dias ’98, is a lab dedicated to bringing robotics to underdeveloped/developing countries and disadvantaged communities.

about Steven Cunden ’17

Major:  Physics

Minors:  Art and Math

Hometown: Phoenix, Mauritius

High School: College du Saint Esprit

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Cunden is working on its latest project, an Assistive Robot for blind travelers, designed to help a visually impaired person travel a city or through a building.  His internship is supported by The Jeffery Fund in the Sciences, managed by the Career Center.

Cunden described his project. “Ultimately, it is about robot-human interaction with visually impaired people. The way a visually impaired person interacts with a robot is completely different from that of a seeing person,” he explained. “Through our project and our user tests, we should be able to get a good grasp of that interaction, and help develop technologies geared toward the visually impaired.”

The physics concentrator provided a layman’s explanation of the work. To help a visually impaired traveler the robot must first find the person’s hands. The robot should be able to detect the hands, get the spatial set of coordinates of the hands and then move its arms toward it, Cunden said. However, one can’t assume that the person will be in a specific position, so ultimately, interaction between the robot and the user should be a spontaneous one.

Cunden first had to program Baxter so that it would find a person’s hands and grab them. Once Baxter is holding the user’s hands, the next step is communicating with them to know where they want to go. Baxter will be programmed to operate in certain regions, and thus will know directions to a specific city and building. Once Baxter knows where the user wants to go, it reaches out for the hand and traces on it, while reading directions aloud to the user.

“The tracing part is basically replicating the arms motion that you would use when giving someone directions; you would usually say, ‘go up there and take a right,’ while pointing with your arm,” Cunden explained. “But since we are working with visually impaired persons, we can’t point, so we trace the directions on the palms of their hands.”

Last summer Cunden worked on a small robotics project with Hamilton physics professor Brian Collett and quickly developed a curiosity about the field. “Ultimately, I decided to strengthen my computer science background and then aim for a hands-on experience over the following summer. Carnegie Mellon University, having one of the best, if not the best, robotics program, was a dream of mine, and I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to have been given this opportunity,” Cunden said. “(Dias) is a fantastic mentor, and the work that she has done in the field of robotics is incredibly inspiring.”

Cunden has already strengthened his background in robotics. “So far, I’ve worked extensively with computer vision through object detection, object tracking and deep learning, while also working with robot kinematics and dynamics,” he said.

Besides working in robotics at one of the best universities, Cunden finds it rewarding to know that he is working to make a change. “Being from a small developing country myself, I know how much this project ultimately matters,” he said. “Technology is best used when helping others in need, and that is what TechBridgeWorld has always tried to do.”

Having such an ideal internship experience has presented Cunden with a bit of a dilemma as to his future plans. “Carnegie Mellon has given me an insight of what robotics really is and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I, however, also thoroughly enjoy physics, as it has been a dream of mine to become a physicist since my early high school days. While I know for sure that graduate school lies ahead, I don’t know yet, in which field. Hopefully I can find a combination of both,” he concluded.

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