New faculty bring inventive attitude
Asst. Prof. Pedro Lopes’ laboratory has the feel of a high-tech toy workshop. Using the latest in 3-D printers, muscle-stimulating wearables and virtual reality headsets, Lopes and his students conjure up experimental new technologies—from musical instruments you play by plucking the air to sensory illusions that make VR experiences more realistic. Occasionally, Lopes’ pursuits spill over into the art world, such as Ad Infintium, an installation at the 2017 Ars Electronica meeting in which a “parasitic” machine took control of users’ muscles to power itself.
The work sits at the vanguard of human-computer interaction, an inherently multi-disciplinary sub-field of computer science that studies how we use our devices—and how they shape us. Lopes, who joined UChicago in January, approaches his field by first inventing new technologies, then interrogating their scientific and philosophical meaning. For him, the breadth of knowledge displayed by UChicago students and faculty convinced him the University was the right place to base his research.
“The University of Chicago has a very special approach to education, one that allows students to be ultra-creative and ultra-critical in all disciplines,” Lopes said. “Human-computer interaction is already this transdisciplinary field, and I felt like here there were already all these people that were mixed personalities and mixed backgrounds. That was a huge draw.”
Other new faculty push forward the technology of artificial intelligence, improving the performance of computers on complex tasks and porting those abilities into new fields of science and industry. Rebecca Willett, a professor in computer science and statistics, creates data science and machine learning methods that help scientists in neurobiology, agriculture, astronomy and medicine extract new discoveries from messy, complex data or low-resolution images.
Sanjay Krishnan, an assistant professor who joined UChicago last summer, designs “intelligent learning systems” that can improve the performance of surgical robots or self-driving cars. Michael Maire, who moved to UChicago from the affiliated Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago, studies the architecture of neural networks, the favored approach for teaching computers to recognize images or outperform humans on the board game Go.