Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Tech Talk; Innovative Robotics Research Keeps Spotlight on MIT Grad Student

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Tech Talk; Innovative Robotics Research Keeps Spotlight on MIT Grad Student

Article excerpt

It's not common that graduate school research brings national attention and prestigious awards to doctoral candidates. For James McLurkin, however, his work in robotics has won widespread recognition, most recently a prestigious student inventor's prize at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

McLurkin, a 30-year-old MIT computer science graduate student, has become nationally known for designing and building tiny robots that interact and work together similar to how ants or bees interact. His research, which portends the possibility of robot teams taking on dangerous tasks such as clearing out minefields, won him the ninth $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness in late February.

"The competition is pretty stiff. The prize recognizes that James is a talented and deserving individual," says Dr. Rodney Brooks, director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who has worked closely with McLurkin.

In a recommendation letter for the prize, Brooks stated, "In the future, the world will be full of teams of mobile robots and they will all trace their ancestry to those developed by James McLurkin while still a student at MIT."

The prize is named after the late inventor Jerome Lemelson. His foundation established a Lemelson-MIT program in 1994 to raise the awareness of inventors and innovators among young people. McLurkin was selected by a judging panel of educators, inventors and entrepreneurs for his "initiative, creativity and extraordinary inventiveness."

While previously having concentrated on building and designing robots as an undergraduate and master's degree candidate, McLurkin now focuses on developing the software tools and distributed computing techniques to enable swarms of robots to act as a group as well as individually. After earning degrees in electrical engineering, McLurkin turned to computer science to develop algorithms and techniques for programming robots.

This past fall, "Invention at Play," a museum exhibition featuring McLurkin's work began a national tour, beginning in Washington, D.C. He is one of several inventors showcased in the exhibition, which is currently at Boston's Museum of Science. "Invention at Play" is sponsored by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and it debuted at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History last fall.

"It was very surreal to see yourself on display," McLurkin says of his visit to the Smithsonian in Washington.

McLurkin's work in robotics first came to prominence in the mid-1990s when he was an undergraduate at MIT in electrical engineering. …

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