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New UCSD Leader to Help Build ‘Global Robotics Powerhouse’

An authority on the subject of robots, Henrik Christensen, is on his way to Torrey Pines Mesa.

The University of California, San Diego announced early this month that Christensen will soon lead the university’s Contextual Robotics Institute — an effort that will not be limited to the engineering school, but will encompass a range of disciplines, including the social sciences.

Christensen is currently the executive director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines and the KUKA chair of Robotics (a reference to KUKA AG, a German maker of factory robots).

“Hiring Henrik Christensen is an important step in our multiyear effort to make UC San Diego, Southern California and the international Cali Baja region a global robotics powerhouse,” said Albert Pisano, dean of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, in a prepared statement.

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The mission of the Contextual Robotics Institute, according to the university, is to develop safe, useful and human-friendly robotics systems that are deeply integrated with how humans live. Christensen said he plans to double research funding for the institute in the next five years — and increase partnerships with industry.

He will be in good company. San Diego organizations already working with robots include 5D Robotics, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE: NOC), Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) and the U.S. Navy’s SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific.

Christensen’s research interests include machine vision — which is particularly important as robots leave highly controlled environments and head out into complex, unstructured environments.

Robots may take on a wider variety of jobs in the future, including farm tasks, helping the elderly live independently — and of course, driving the car.

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, by the way, is an engineer whose research interests include robotics.

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A Robot Footnote: Georgia Tech has done some interesting research on robotics under Christensen’s leadership. One team recently published results of a study on how humans might place too much trust in the machines. In an experiment led by researcher Paul Robinette, 30 subjects were guided through several rooms by a rolling robot. Midway through the experiment was a surprise: a fire alarm. At that second, the study subject had to decide where to go. Rather than leave through the obviously marked fire exit, almost every subject decided to follow the robot, even if the robot appeared lost or poorly programmed. Why? It probably had a lot to do with the robot carrying a red, light-up sign that read EMERGENCY GUIDE ROBOT.

If malicious software is a problem now, what will it be like when we get more robot helpers?

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Short Takes: AT&T Inc. said it spent seven figures for a new distributed antenna system at Petco Park, installed in time for baseball’s All-Star Game. The system is a network of many small antennas. … Verizon says it is the first U.S. wireless carrier to complete a fifth-generation radio specification. So-called 5G will allow very fast data speeds — several gigabits of data per second — on wireless devices. Qualcomm is part of its team. … Manta Instruments Inc., based in the University Towne Center neighborhood, has introduced its ViewSizer 3000 — a new machine that determines the size and concentration of nanoparticles. The company is a graduate of the EvoNexus incubator. … Mitek Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: MITK) is up to 26 patents after receiving U.S. Patent No. 9,298,979 for its unique system for processing and extracting content from an image of a driver’s license captured using a mobile device.

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Let the Light Do the Talking: San Diego-based LightPointe Communications Inc. said recently that it is an investor in Firefly Wireless Networks LLC, also based in San Diego. Firefly specializes in communicating data using visible light or the infrared spectrum; it has been able to get patents in the visible light communications sector, LightPointe said. Firefly operated in stealth mode for two years and emerged with its announcement in late June. The companies said Firefly’s indoor Ethernet communication gear is waiting for FCC approval. Heinz Willebrand is CEO of both companies. In addition to Lightpointe, Firefly’s investors are Berg and Berg Enterprises and Teleconnect GmbH.

Send San Diego technology news to bradg@sdbj.com.

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