Skip to main content

ASU engineers earn NSF CAREER Awards

2 assistant professors working to improve human life with artificial intelligence

Image of brain with computer motherboard in it
July 02, 2018

Two faculty members in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering have earned the highly competitive and prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation.

Heni Ben Amor and Yezhou Yang, both assistant professors of computer science and engineering studying robotics in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, represent two of ASU’s three winners (the third is Nicholas Stephanopoulos, assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences). These researchers continue the long history of junior faculty receiving this honor in the Fulton Schools. Over the past five years, 30 Fulton Schools faculty have earned NSF CAREER Awards.

“I’m proud we’re continuing to attract faculty whose powerful ideas lead to discoveries of foundational value to their fields with potentially transformational breakthrough applications,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Fulton Schools. “These awards enable our junior faculty to impact an array of critical problem sets in engineering and science and improve our nation’s future.”

The NSF CAREER Awards support the nation’s most promising junior faculty members as they pursue outstanding research, excellence in teaching and the integration of education and research. In total, Ben Amor and Yang secured more than $1 million over the next five years to make transformative advances in artificial intelligence through machine learning and human-technology collaborative systems.

“I’m delighted to see these researchers continuing the school’s tradition of winning such awards and being recognized in their communities early in their career,” said Sandeep Gupta, director of the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering — one of the six Fulton Schools. “Heni and Yezhou have far-reaching potential to serve as academic role models who will lead advances in our school’s long-standing focus area, artificial intelligence, and its mission to benefit society through excellence in education, research and leadership in service to the profession and community.”

Given the many fears society has regarding robots of the future, Ben Amor and Yang seek to discover fundamental technologies that will complement humans rather than replace them. Interactive robotics has the potential to assist humans and dramatically improve their quality of life.

Preventative robotics steer humans away from injury

ASU Assistant Professor

Heni Ben Amor

Ben Amor conducts research at the intersection of robotics and human-machine interaction. He investigates how humans and machines can work together to accomplish important tasks in service, health care and other industries.

The five-year, $499,625 CAREER Award project will focus on establishing the concept of preventative robotics to intelligently minimize the risk of injury. In contrast to rehabilitation robotics that focuses on therapeutic procedures after an injury, preventative robotics is a novel approach that incorporates human well-being into robot control and decision making to steer away from injury.

Ben Amor will seek to generate and deploy assistive robotic technologies, such as a prosthesis or an exoskeleton, that seamlessly blend with actions of a human partner to achieve an intended function while minimizing biomechanical stress on the body. Combining these goals will unlock new potential for robotics to improve public and occupational health.

“The unique element is we’re developing machine-learning methods, called interaction primitives, that allow machines to predict the bodily ramifications of an action. They allow the machine to reason about how an action will affect the human partner,” said Ben Amor. “It becomes a partnership, or a symbiosis, between the human and machine rather than two different agents each having their own goal.”

Traditional prosthetic devices don’t adapt to the human user. Over time, people will change their walking gait to acclimate to their prosthesis. This translates to more stresses applied on the healthy leg. As a result, prosthesis wearers may lose mobility completely because the healthy leg sustains further injury. 

Illustration of the biomechanics of a walking gait

The graphic shows the biomechanics of a walking gait when a person uses a lower-leg prosthesis. The white circles indicate points of stress on the human body. Graphic courtesy of Heni Ben Amor

This new approach of preventative robotics will be implemented on a powered-ankle prosthesis to predict internal stresses, anticipate joint loads and proactively avoid damage. The resulting prosthesis will have the potential to significantly lower the risk of musculoskeletal diseases, such as osteoarthritis.

“These devices could help many millions of people who have developed or are about to develop musculoskeletal diseases as well as people who have lower-leg amputations,” said Ben Amor. “This can help improve their quality of life and at the same time substantially reduce health care costs.”

Ben Amor’s research team will collaborate with Mayo Clinic and SpringActive, a company developing modern prostheses that restore biological gait to people with lower-limb amputations, to develop the assistive ankle device and bring it to fruition for a measurable impact on the community.

“I must admit I was completely surprised when I found out about the CAREER Award,” said Ben Amor. “The urban legend is you won’t get it on the first try. I think given the level of competition involved in these proposals, it’s really important for you to go the extra mile and maybe even the extra 10 miles to win, and that’s exactly what the Fulton Schools and my colleagues at CIDSE helped me achieve.”

Visual recognition with knowledge helps robots adapt to human needs

ASU Assistant Professor

Yezhou Yang

Yang’s research focuses on creating intelligent robots that can understand humans through the lens of visual perception. He studies active perception, an area of computer vision with a focus on computational modeling, decision and control strategies for robotic perception. He combines this with natural language processing and artificial intelligence reasoning to advance robotic visual learning. This improves the capabilities of a robot or any intelligent agent to make sense of a specific environment.

The five-year, $550,000 CAREER Award project will address the challenging task of pairing visual recognition with knowledge. This research will attempt to enable a seeing machine to identify unknown visible concepts from previous encounters and other contextual information.

Yang said current machine learning technology has been nearly perfect at its performance. Google, DeepMind and other companies have developed systems that surpass human capacity to recognize objects on ImageNet, a large visual database of categories for use in visual-recognition software research.

“The problem with the current approaches is that they typically need a pre-defined set of visual categories,” said Yang. “We want to build a system that’s able to expand its repository of visual categories from the pre-defined set.”

For instance, consider a machine that has never encountered a zebra but has recognized horses and patterns with black and white stripes. Integrating visual and linguistic information, such as a zebra is a horse-like animal with a black-and-white-striped appearance, will enable a machine to formulate a new “recognizer” for the visual concept "zebra" and to recognize this new concept later.

“We’re trying to see if we can extend the machine’s capability to create new recognizers for new categories,” said Yang. “We need to extract knowledge in a machine-readable form, using natural language processing, knowledge retrieval and reasoning capabilities — all of which are inspired by human behavior and thinking. We also want to test this capability on a physical active agent to detect whether our system can generalize its visual recognition capabilities beyond the purest model.”

Yang’s project will lay the foundation for the development of robust personal mobile applications and service robots, such as visual assistants for people with impaired vision and/or voice-enable agents for elderly care.

“Ideally, we want to create more adaptive active agents with perception capabilities,” said Yang. “These agents will adapt to the user’s behavior, preference and specific requirements to better serve their needs.” 

Yang said he’s excited about the opportunity to start this new avenue of research with support from the CAREER Award. This is a project he has dreamed of conducting at ASU, especially in the Fulton Schools.

“I really appreciate the environment here at the university within the Fulton Schools,” said Yang. “They grant the junior faculty enough support, great professional mentoring, freedom and time to discover and explore their ideas while promoting interdisciplinary collaborations among faculties, which is very unique. That’s why I enjoy doing research at ASU.”

Top image courtesy of Pixabay

More Science and technology


Solar panels with a blue sky and white clouds in the background.

ASU researcher clarifies rapid glass-formation process with wide-ranging applications

Glass is formed by vapor deposition through a process in which vaporized material is condensed onto a substrate, layer by layer, to create a solid glass film. This method involves heating the source…

NASA's Shadowcam instrument.

Tightening the 'collar' around the moon’s darkest mysteries

Unlike the Earth, the moon tilts only slightly on its axis — about one-and-a-half degrees, compared with the Earth’s 23-degree tilt. Because of this, there are certain places on the moon that never…

Man wearing a NASA flight suit stands in front of an American flag as he speaks to an unseen audience.

Children of seasonal workers explore STEM subjects at ASU summer academy

José Hernández looked at the 70 faces in front of him and knew what they were thinking. Hernández, a former NASA astronaut, was speaking to students who had gathered at Arizona State University for…