Pradeep K. Khosla: Superman


September 13, 2001

Reprinted with permission from "The Seats of Wisdom" article, Carnegie Mellon Magazine, volume 20, number 1, fall 2001 Text by Ann Curran, Editor, Carnegie Mellon Magazine Photos by Glenn Brookes Photography (724)-779-9811

Pradeep K. Khosla: Superman When Pradeep K. Khosla received the Philip and Marsha Dowd Professorship of Engineering and Robotics, the Dowds knew enough about the recipient of their chair to bring along a Superman costume for Khosla.

It's just that he thinks so big and so long and in so many directions that the notion of his flying through the sky to solve every mini-crisis doesn't seem absurd.

Khosla heads the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. U.S. News and World Report in its April 9 issue named the department's graduate program in computer engineering number one in the nation. While that's thrilling, Khosla is most excited at the moment about the CyberScout Project.

So how does CyberScout work? An individual simply gestures or talks to a team of robots -- maybe 10, maybe hundreds of robots. The robots understand, program themselves to perform the task described and carry it out. Khosla wants to apply this technology to other types of intelligent systems, including computers. Sure, it sounds like science fiction. In Khosla's story, the robots can range in size from all-terrain vehicles to little bitty five-centimeter millibots. Currently, his robots recognize and respond to six hand gestures.

The researcher expects CyberScout to debut as surveillance or mapping machinery. He sees the robots providing security in department and grocery stores and homes. He's also working for a company interested in robots that can watch a welder, discern the welder's methods and intentions, and then program itself to perform a welding task. Those are clearly very serious robots. But this native of Bombay, India, also imagines and plans to produce pet robots. "You would be able to interact with your pets, and they will respond to you in ways you want them to respond," he says. And no, you wouldn't have to take them for a walk or change the litter box--unless you choose to.

Building robotic arms, stilling human hand tremor Khosla's interest in robots goes back at least as far as his Ph.D. thesis describing the feasibility of a direct-drive arm. A U.S. company currently manufactures such an arm used in high precision electronic assembly.

Khosla has worked on a reconfigurable robot with several graduate students: Christiaan J. Paredis, a research scientist, Institute for Complex Engineered Systems; Jin-Oh Kim and Laura Kelmar. They are trying to come up with a general purpose robot. "We were able to design a robot that can compile itself; that knows about its properties from a schematic, creates software automatically and executes tasks," he explains.

The professor contends that all or most of his research projects are related to each other. Take Chimera for example. It's a real-time operating system that composes software automatically, certainly applicable to CyberScout receiving orders through hand gestures. Khosla notes that many commercial systems adopted ideas from Chimera--including VxWorks and ControlShell. "This was all published," he notes, "I'm a firm believer in publishing work and putting it in the public domain, especially when it is funded by...the federal government."

CyberRave, which sounds like something you want to keep your kids away from, works within CyberScout. CyberRave is a system that will eventually understand how to simulate CyberScout at work and reprogram and tell CyberScouts what to do.

For Johnson & Johnson, Khosla, along with Ph.D. student Wei Tech Ang and systems scientist Cameron N. Riviere, is working on a hand-held instrument for enhanced microsurgical accuracy. "Every human being has tremor," Khosla explains of imperceptible hand movement. "Even the best surgeon has tremor. You don't see it, but it's there. When you're doing micron-level motion [eye surgery, for example], tremor is going to make a difference."

Since human tremor occurs within a certain frequency range, Khosla and his researchers are aiming at making an instrument that will differentiate between intended motion and unintended motion and compensate.

New curriculum avoids the cookie-cutter engineer Khosla is particularly proud of his work on the Wipe the Slate Clean Committee, which basically re-created the engineering degree at Carnegie Mellon. He developed the introductory freshman course that encourages hands-on engineering activity to submerge students in the field and let them see early on the real work of engineers.

In providing a year's worth of electives to students, Khosla says, the university is avoiding "a cookie-cutter model of an engineer." Now, students can pursue joint degrees -- in engineering and music, engineering and computer science, engineering and business, or engineering and whatever. Khosla also worked on establishing the curriculum for the Ph.D. in robotics.

As department head in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Khosla is having fun. He's hired 10 new people. He's set up the Center for Silicon System Implementation, directed by Professor L.T. Pileggi. Khosla plans three additional centers to study wireless and broadband networking, security, and embedded computing. "These are future growth areas...very hot areas. I'm borrowing a page from [the late president] Dick Cyert and [former provost] Angel Jordan's [E'59] playbook of comparative advantage," he explains his focus on these areas.

"There's one complaint I have about being department head," he says, "I don't have time to teach." Right now, his teaching is confined to overseeing the studies of 14 graduate students and 15 undergraduates who work in his lab.

Oh, yeah, he has a business, too. He serves on the board of QuantaPoint Inc., which he co-founded along with Eric J. Hoffman (E'85), the company president, and Takeo Kanade, the U.A. and Helen Whitaker university professor of robotics and computer science. Based on a laser-scanning system, the company's key product creates very high-precision 3-D models of existing buildings. Most blueprints of buildings don't accurately reflect the space to the degree that QuantaPoint's laser system does. Architects use the resulting drawings in renovations of office buildings and factories.

Khosla can imagine using the laser scanning system to collect information on settings that could become the background for video games. "We'll go out there and collect enough information about Paris and then drop that in this video game. And then you can put your characters in." At present, Khosla says, much of this work is done by hand.

He's thrilled with his new chair. He sees it as a morale booster because "it's peer recognition of whatever contributions you have made...It makes a difference outside the university...People know you have been honored." He counts the money that accompanies the chair as important but not the only reason to get a chair.

Oh, he urges, "Say that I have a great wife [Thespine Kavoulakis HS'89, head, The Writing Group] and kids." Is that Superman or what?

The Philip and Marsha Dowd Professorship of Engineering and Robotics, held by Pradeep K. Khosla, honors Philip and Marsha Dowd. Philip Dowd (E'63), also a graduate of the University of Chicago, is senior vice president of SunGard Data Systems Inc., remote computer support systems for the financial investment and health care industries. A Carnegie Mellon trustee, he is former CEO and director of SunGard. Marsha Dowd, who recently earned a graduate degree from DePaul University, is author of "Appearances."