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David J. Anderson

Linda Bartoshuk

Malcolm Cohen

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Bernd Heinrich

Richard Herd

Clément Imbert

Maja Mataric

Roger Quinn

Zandy Hillis-Starr

Sherri Steward

Manuela Veloso

Roy Walford

Rick West

Back to Cool Careers in Science
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Photo of Maja Mataric Meet Maja Mataric.

Maja is working on developing the next generation of intelligent robots! How cool is that?!
Question What inspired you to design robots?
Answer First, to be clear, I don't design robots; I design their minds and their behaviors. I got interested in minds and behaviors when I was in college, and majored and minored in computer science, cognitive science, and neuroscience. Those, put together, led me to the study of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Then I went to graduate school, and found that some of the most exciting work in AI was on intelligent robot behavior, so that's how it all started for me.
Question What educational background do you need to design robots?
Answer Again, we need to be clear on what you mean by "designing robots." If you mean designing robot bodies, that requires knowledge of mechanical and electrical engineering, and knowing computer science also helps, but is not necessary. If you mean designing robot minds and behaviors, then you need a background in computer science, and electrical engineering also helps. Finally, if you are interested in animal-inspired robotics, it is very helpful to study biology, ethology (the study of animal behavior in nature) and cognitive science.
Question What do you do during a typical day at work?
Answer I don't have any typical days. In any given day I usually communicate with a great deal of people by e-mail, discussing everything from research ideas to conferences and collaborations. I also meet with many of my students and post-doctoral researchers, I may spend some time in my labs, and I may work on a paper or a presentation that describes the latest results of my lab's research. On some days I have to work on grant proposals to raise funds for paying my students and post-docs, and for buying more supplies for the laboratory. I also teach two days per week, and have to prepare those classes and meet with students during office hours. Finally, I serve on some committees, which meet occasionally to discuss issues about my university and my department. So no day is like any other day.
Question What do you enjoy most about your work? Is there anything about it you don't like?
Answer I enjoy the excitement, innovative nature and freedom to discover, as well as working with bright minds. I don't like dealing with bureaucracy, which seems to be an unavoidable part of most jobs: too much paperwork taking time away from creative work.
Question If I'm a student thinking about a career in designing and building robots, what can I do now to prepare?
Answer For those interested in designing and building robots, there are three career paths: academic research at a university (what I do), working for a company (these companies build robots and sell them to universities), and working for NASA (the main non-academic user of robotics today). In the future, as robotics becomes a larger part of everyday life, there will be more companies and more career possibilities. To prepare for doing robotics, see my answer above, to the question about educational backgrounds.
Question Is there anything else you'd like to let Frontiers viewers know about yourself or your career?
Answer Science is the most exciting career in the world because one gets to discover how the world works, and gets to add new artifacts (like robots) to that world, thereby changing it forever. Science is also exciting because it is full of great people one gets to know and work with. But it is also a lot of work that is comparatively poorly paid (given how many hours scientists spend working on their discoveries), so those of us who do it have a passion for it that drives us beyond any specific payoff, simply for the quest for discovery.

If you would like to know more about Maja Mataric, you can read a brief biography. You can also read her answers to questions that were asked by viewers following Natural Born Robots.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.