As a child, James McLurkin was, like many of his young counterparts, constantly building – using LEGOs, video games, cardboard boxes and just about any material he could get his inquisitive hands on to create and explore how things worked.
He has since become Dr. McLurkin, currently an assistant professor of computer science at Rice University. And his accomplishments attest to the fact that his curiosity never ceased to exist. In fact, it has grown exponentially.
On April 24, McLurkin shared the story of his successes with students, faculty and staff at Schwartz Lecture Hall, as he presented the keynote address for Kean Research Days 2012 – a two-day event honoring and sharing the broad range of interesting and transformative research led by students and faculty at Kean University.
The 2003 recipient of the Lemelson-M.I.T. student prize for invention, McLurkin was a fitting addition to the event. His presentation was complimented by the more than 100 students and more than a dozen faculty members, from across a diverse range of disciplines, who presented their original research through poster presentations and break-out sessions throughout the two days.
McLurkin’s presentation, Dances with Robots: The Story of One Engineer, 112 Little Robots & the Toys, Insects & Star Wars Movies that made it all Possible, began with a lighthearted look at how society views robots, Hollywood's portrayal of them, the current state of robotics, the future of the technology and the question of man vs. machine.
“If there is a conversation between a person and a robot and you can’t tell the two apart, is the robot more intelligent?” he asked. Robots, he concluded, are incredibly unintelligent yet can be used for good, particularly in swarms. "What if we sent 20 robots to look for hot spots in tornados... or 200 robots to look for survivors after an earthquake," he asked, noting also that "we will see autonomous vehincles in our lifetime."
McLurkin explained how, using nature as a model, his core research is based on developing distributed algorithms for multi-robot systems: the software that produces complex group behaviors from the interactions of many simple robots. He demonstrated the capabilities of these tiny machines with a fascinating live demonstration as well as video clips of the swarm in action.
These ideas are not new, he said, since insects such as ants and bees have existed within this type of swarming system for hundreds of millions of years. Inspired by this, McLurkin’s robots perform individual tasks that collectively contribute to the goals of the group. His original “SwarmBots,” created during his five-year tenure as lead research scientist at iRobot, one of the world's leading robotics companies, was the largest in the world at the time.
“Dr. McLurkin's presentation was very engaging. It was great seeing algorithms that I've learned about at Kean, such as bubble sort, come to life through his robots,” said senior computer science/information systems major Maricarmen Cintron. “His presentation changed my view on robots and the important applications they can have.”
Before concluding, McLurkin offered 6 steps toward finding your passion; advice he developed from his own life, one that has led him to a job he greatly enjoys: 1) Be honest about your interests, 2) Make a plan, 3) Spend money, 4) Spend time, 5) Make mistakes quickly and 6) Get help. The moral of his story, he said, is best summed up by the following quote:
"A master in the art of living draws no shared distinction between work and play..." ~Unknown
Following his keynote, McLurkin also enjoyed lunch with members of the computer science program who quenched some of their own curiosities within the one-on-one session with the expert.
McLurkin has been profiled by Time Magazine, Nova ScienceNOW, and was named one of TheGrio’s 100 History Makers in the Making – a list that has also highlighted Oprah Winfrey and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker.
Click here to view the Kean Research Day 2012 photo gallery.