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Building smarter robots

Case researchers take lead role in national effort to breathe life into cyborgs

To build robots that can walk and lift and react in life-like fashion, scientists believe we need to know more about how animals make decisions. The National Science Foundation is relying upon Case roboticist Roger Quinn and neuroscientist Hillel Chiel to find out. 

The Case researchers will lead a five-year, $8 million NSF research project that will explore animal decision-making and apply those neural insights to building smarter cyborgs. It’s part of a $50 million, multi-university effort called NeuroNex Network, which aims to discern how brain power allows animals to interact with the world around them.

“The most important questions in neuroscience are so complex they require large teams of researchers with complementary expertise,” Joanne Tornow, NSF’s assistant director for biological sciences, said in a news release announcing the project in August.

Quinn and Chiel, longtime collaborators, will bring special expertise to the quest.

Quinn is the Arthur P. Armington Professor of Engineering in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. He’s the founder and director of the Biorobotics Complex at the Case School of Engineering and a pioneer of biologically inspired robotics. 

Chiel is a professor of biology, neurosciences and biomedical engineering in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The pair will examine how the nervous system in animals coordinates and controls interactions with the environment. They call their project NeuroNex: Communication, Coordination and Control in Neuromechanical Systems (C3NS). 

“Most roboticists try to solve problems with optimization, or with basic design solutions,” Quinn told The Daily, CWRU’s online news source. “But what I’ve wanted to know is: How do animals solve these problems? It’s a different way of approaching the problem and there’s an animal that has solved just about every engineering problem ever.” 

Venkataramanan Balakrishnan, the Charles H. Phipps Dean of the Case School of Engineering, said the project will enhance Case’s reputation in an emerging field: “We’re the lead. This is something to be very, very proud of,” he said.

Roger Quinn

Hillel Chiel

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