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Road Bots: Lionel Robert M ’97

Alumni Profile: Lionel Robert

Lionel Robert poses among equipment at an on-campus robotics lab at the University of Michigan.

Robert is looking for answers to all of the questions surrounding autonomous vehicle technology.

LIONEL ROBERT is an associate professor of information at the University of Michigan, where he researches and collaborates with students on the relationship between technology and teamwork in modern society. Robotics and autonomous vehicles — AVs for short — are his specialty, which is why, when an AV struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, on March 18, Robert suddenly found himself in high demand by the media.

The fatality occurred when a woman stepped out in front of a self-driving Uber. The AV failed to stop even with a safety driver, and Robert confirms that the AV’s lidar technology (like radar but using light rather than radio for detection and ranging) should have been able to detect the moving person and respond. But he also stresses that this tragedy is a result of multiple factors.

“We have to be careful to not oversell the technology,” he says. “Look, an autonomous vehicle is a vehicle. A vehicle weighs one or two tons and, moving at x amount of speed, cannot stop on a dime.”

There’s a widespread perception that autonomous vehicles will all but eradicate traffic problems and accidents on the road once they become commonplace. But Robert explains that figuring out how to program AVs and how to integrate them into society brings up one issue after another, many of which are counterintuitive.

“When we first started with the problem of autonomous driving, we thought it would be easy, and the reason why is because driving is a pretty explicit activity,” he says. “There are laws. There are fixed lines. It seems to be made for an algorithm, for artificial intelligence. But it turns out that driving is an incredibly social activity. No one follows the law when they drive.”

Should AVs be programmed to break traffic laws in order to avoid accidents or react to other drivers? Should urban infrastructure and roads be redesigned to accommodate AVs? Questions like these continue to arise as AVs become more of a reality. Robert believes it will take a lot of education and engagement of the general public to move forward with this kind of technology.

In the meantime, Robert is focusing on research with his students. One particular study they’re conducting uses virtual scenarios to explore the ways AVs might communicate with pedestrians.

“The thing about this research is that we’re doing something that people don’t know,” Robert says. “I tell students the answer isn’t in the back of the book; we’ve got to find out together.”

New video series puts discussion ‘On the Table’ and in your pocket

Clemson has launched a new video series that puts experts on your screen when and where you want them. “On the Table,” a public policy series from ClemsonTV, tackles such tough subjects as concussions in sports, the role of technology in our lives and health screening disparities, providing in-depth discussion from leading researchers and scholars who are members of the Clemson faculty.

“We wanted to put topics on the table, figuratively and literally, with something very visual to represent the topic,” says ClemsonTV director Jacob Barker. “The web is flooded with how-to videos, but there is very little to offer in the way of substantive discussion. We wanted to combine expert information with the flexibility of on-demand viewing.”

Each episode is hosted by Peter Kent, a career journalist and former science writer at Clemson. The first three episodes are available now, with several more in production.

In episode one, “Protecting Against Concussions,” Greg Batt, an assistant professor in food, nutrition and packaging, and John DesJardins, an associate professor in bioengineering, explain their work with the national Head Health Initiative on three challenges: finding better tools for doctors to detect brain injury; creating new ways to monitor head impacts as they happen; and developing improved, energy-absorbing and energy-reducing materials.

The second episode, “To Trust or Not To Trust,” features Richard Pak, an associate professor in psychology and his research on the relationship between humans and the technology that makes hundreds of hidden decisions in our lives every day. The outcomes can be beneficial, such as self-driving cars that improve highway safety and driving efficiency. Sometimes, however, they can be detrimental. Are we trusting technology enough or too much?

In episode three, “Witness Breast Cancer Awareness,” Rachel Mayo, a professor in public health sciences, talks about the power of a personal experience that led her to launch the South Carolina Witness Project, part of the National Witness Project. The effort, a network of survivors and community-based organizations, aims to eliminate the disparity of breast and cervical cancer diagnoses and deaths: Black women are more likely to have mammograms, but much more likely to die of breast cancer. Mayo’s research shows that how information is presented makes a difference.

Yet another episode looks at Wade Foster.

Wade Foster was 13 when he helped to build a university he could never attend. His children could never attend. His grandchildren could never attend. Foster was a criminal; a black boy caught stealing six dollars worth of clothes from a white family. Sentenced to six months in prison, South Carolina gave Foster to Clemson University to serve his sentence as convict labor. South Carolina called convict labor “slaves of the state.”

Rhondda Thomas, associate professor of African American Literature at Clemson, sheds light on the slaves who labored to build the institution and why it’s necessary to paint the full picture of a school’s history.

Thomas joined the university in 2007 and teaches African American literature in the English department. She is the author of “Exodus: A Cultural History of Afro-Atlantic Identity, 1774-1903 and the editor of Jane Edna Hunter’s autobiography, “A Nickel and a Prayer.” In 2013, she co-edited “The South Carolina Roots of African American Thought” with Clemson professor of English Susanna Ashton.

Last year she received a grant for her research about African Americans who lived and labored on Clemson land during the pre-1963 integration period. James E. Bostic Jr. and Edith H. Bostic of Atlanta awarded Thomas $50,000. That gift was matched by the university, bringing the total grant to $100,000.