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  • Rendering of the Government-Furnished Equipment robot being developed for the DARPA Robotics Challenge by Boston Dynamics.
    Credit: DARPA
01/17/2013 11:58:00

TEDxCaltech: Advancing Humanoid Robots

This week we will be highlighting the student speakers who auditioned and were selected to give five-minute talks about their brain-related research at TEDxCaltech: The Brain, a special event that will take place on Friday, January 18, in Beckman Auditorium. 

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TED has created a program of local, self-organized events called TEDx. Speakers are asked to give the talk of their lives. Live video coverage of the TEDxCaltech experience will be available during the event at

When Matanya Horowitz started his undergraduate work in 2006 at University of Colorado at Boulder, he knew that he wanted to work in robotics—mostly because he was disappointed that technology had not yet made good on his sci-fi–inspired dreams of humanoid robots.

"The best thing we had at the time was the Roomba, which is a great product, but compared to science fiction it seemed really diminutive," says Horowitz. He therefore decided to major in not just electrical engineering, but also economics, applied math, and computer science. "I thought that the answer to better robots would lie somewhere in the middle of these different subjects, and that maybe each one held a different key," he explains.

Now a doctoral student at Caltech—he earned his masters in the same four years as his multiple undergrad degrees—Horowitz is putting his range of academic experience to work in the labs of engineers Joel Burdick and John Doyle to help advance robotics and intelligent systems. As a member of the control and dynamical systems group, he is active in several Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenges that seek to develop better control mechanisms for robotic arms, as well as develop humanoid robots that can do human-like tasks in dangerous situations, such as disable bombs or enter nuclear power plants during an emergency. 

But beneficial advances in robotics also bring challenges. Inspired as a kid by the robot tales of Isaac Asimov, Horowitz has long been interested in how society might be affected by robots.

"As I began programming just on my own, I saw how easy it was to create something that at least seemed to act with intelligence," he says. "It was interesting to me that we were so close to humanoid robots and that doing these things was so easy. But we also have all these implications we need to think about."

Horowitz's TEDx talk will explore some of the challenges of building and controlling something that needs to interact in the physical world. He says he's thrilled to have the opportunity to speak at TEDx, not just for the chance to talk to a general audience about his work, but also to hopefully inspire others by his enthusiasm for the field.

"Recently, there has been such a monumental shift from what robots were capable of even just five years ago, and people should be really excited about this," says Horowitz. "We've been hearing about robots for 30, 40 years—they've always been 'right around the corner.' But now we can finally point to one and say, 'Here it is, literally coming around a corner.'"



Written by Katie Neith