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James McLurkin

Robotics engineer James McLurkin was born in 1972 in Baldwin, New York. His mother was a speech therapist on Long Island; and, his father, a business manager for AT&T. In 1988, McLurkin built his first robot, Rover, and quickly followed it with many other designs such as LEGO bricks. He also programed self-designed video games. Following graduation from Baldwin High School, McLurkin enrolled at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he received his B.S. degree in electrical engineering with a minor in mechanical engineering in 1995. McLurkin continued his studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated in 1999 with his M.S. in electrical engineering. He returned to MIT and went on to receive his M.S. degree in computer science in 2003, and his Ph.D. in computer science in 2008.

McLurkin worked as an intern at General Motors Advanced Technology Group in 1994, and remained there until he entered graduate school. From 1995 to 1997, he was assigned as research assistant to Dr. Rodney Brooks at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. There, McLurkin designed the “Robotic Ants” robots for his undergraduate thesis. He then began consulting in 1998, and worked on projects with Walt Disney Imagineering and iRobot Corporation. McLurkin created the “SwarmBots” robots during his five-year tenure as lead research scientist at iRobo. In 2009, McLurkin was appointed assistant professor at Rice University. Using nature as a model, McLurkin’s core research has centered around developing distributed algorithms for multi-robot systems – the software for large swarms of autonomous robots. McLurkin’s research articles have been published in academic journals such as International Foundation for Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems, International Symposium on Experimental Robotics and IEEE Transactions on Education.

Since 1995, McLurkin has has been asked to speak at Smithsonian Museum, Harvard University, Infosys, IBM, and Honda. In 2002, Mclurkin was featured in the Lemelson Center’s traveling exhibit, “Invention at Play",” and was awarded the 2003 Lemelson MIT Student Prize. He was recognized by Time magazine as one of America’s top-five engineers in the “Rise of the Machines” feature, and by Black Enterprise magazine as the Best and Brightest Under 40.”

James McLurkin was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on February 3, 2013

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Baldwin Senior High School

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

University of California, Berkeley

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New York

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Scuba Diving

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Get it done, Make it happen, and Efficient.

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Robotics engineer James McLurkin (1972 - ) is an award-winning robotics engineer and creator of “SwarmBots.”


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Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of James McLurkin's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - James McLurkin lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - James McLurkin describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - James McLurkin talks about the educational background of his mother's family

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - James McLurkin talks about doctors on his mother's side of the family

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - James McLurkin talks about his grandfather, Walter Lawson

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - James McLurkin talks about his grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - James McLurkin talks about his mother's upbringing in Columbus, Ohio

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - James McLurkin talks about his mother's career ambitions

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - James McLurkin describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - James McLurkin talks about his father's undergraduate education

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - James McLurkin talks about his father, James McLurkin III

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - James McLurkin talks about how his parents met

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - James McLurkin talks about his father's work experience

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - James McLurkin talks about his parents' personalities

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - James McLurkin talks about his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - James McLurkin talks about his childhood neighborhoods

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - James McLurkin describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - James McLurkin talks about his early education, part 1

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - James McLurkin talks about his early education, part 2

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - James McLurkin talks about his experience at Schubert Elementary School

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - James McLurkin talks about his introduction to video games and computers

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - James McLurkin talks about his childhood interests

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - James McLurkin talks about his cousin, Roy, and being introduced to video games

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - James McLurkin talks about his middle school years and his interest in robots

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - James McLurkin talks about his interest in biking

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - James McLurkin talks about the social challenges of middle school

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - James McLurkin talks about his experience at Baldwin High School

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - James McLurkin talks about winning the NAACP ACT-SO science fair

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - James McLurkin talks about his high school relationship

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - James McLurkin talks about his father's influence on his interests in engineering

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - James McLurkin talks about his decision to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - James McLurkin talks about his experience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - James McLurkin describes the demographics of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - James McLurkin talks about his mentors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - James McLurkin talks about the Rodney Brooks and the development of robots

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - James McLurkin talks about his first small robot, CLEO

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - James McLurkin talks about his decision to go to graduate school

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - James McLurkin talks about working with Rodney Brooks

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - James McLurkin talks about iRobot

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - James McLurkin talks about media recognition of his work

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - James McLurkin describes meeting his wife, Adar

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - James McLurkin talks about his wife, Adar

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - James McLurkin describes his doctoral research

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - James McLurkin talks about his pet ants and the role they play in his robotics research

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - James McLurkin talks about artificial intelligence

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - James McLurkin talks about his decision to join the faculty at Rice University

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - James McLurkin talks about multi-robot systems

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - James McLurkin talks about multi-robot communications

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - James McLurkin talks about dynamic task management

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - James McLurkin talks about the future of robotics

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - James McLurkin talks about other key players in the robotics industry

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - James McLurkin reflects upon his career

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - James McLurkin shares his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - James McLurkin talks about his desire to start a family

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - James McLurkin talks about his desire to be a well-rounded person

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - James McLurkin talks about how he would like to be remembered







James McLurkin talks about his first small robot, CLEO
James McLurkin talks about his pet ants and the role they play in his robotics research
Okay, okay, so, now, you developed there, from what I understand, something called CLEO, which is a--well, what was, explain what CLEO is?$$So CLEO was the first, the first, small robot I built that had, that was fully autonomous and had enough processing and sensing to do some tasks. And the way the money works, right, you have to spin this picture of these future applications. And we were gonna go into the small intestine. So we had some money from doctors to do this. So I took a Domino's pizza box and cut out--I made a little maze, looked like the large intestine (unclear). And CLEO would drive through it and get to the thing and then come back out.$$How big was CLEO? About like that?$$It was a little bit bigger than a cubic inch.$$Okay, but small enough to go through intestines?$$Well, no, no, small enough--small enough to go through an intestine model, made out of cardboard on a Dominos's pizza box. So real intestines, we actually--then we actually went and we hired two undergrads. So this is my, I guess I'm a junior now. So I was kind of the senior undergrad and Dean and Art, and these guys, mechanical engineers, were trying to figure out how to move in a large intestine. So, so I remember once the purchase order lady, the email hit my inbox first, like, you bought ten pounds of chicken skins? And I was like, I guess we did. Why are we (unclear), gotta get a hold of Deano. Yeah, I got chicken skins 'cause we have to build intestines because we have to build something that has some kind of, some kind of mechanical properties that are similar to what you get inside a large intestine. So they decide chicken skin was the best way to do it. It turns out moving in a large intestine is really fiendishly difficult. Animals do it with cilia and hoofs and grippers and things that you really can't employ as a robot. So getting things to move. So we built--we, they built these clever mechanical devices with, you know, threads on all sides that would kind of rotate, and then, like those kind of squishy toys that roll through your hands, except they had the robotic, (unclear) except put threads all the way around. And that could make a little bit of progress, but it couldn't pull any weight, and he had to always worry about ingestion of the--you don't wanna ingest someone's colon into the machine. And you couldn't make it small enough and the complexity, it'd get gummed up. And it's just a fiendishly difficult problem. So now, they're looking at using magnets to move things around or as micro-robotics get more mature, and we can build little micro things and work on a micro level, then there's more possibility of moving these around at that scale. But on the macro-scale, it's--it forces, it--I don't, I'm just not clear if there's a good solution to it or I don't know, I don't know of one. And we may have viable micro-level things before we solve the macro (unclear) problem. So, but that was the whole point of CLEO, but--CLEO. And CLEO was the precursor--actually, the first robot I built, the first small one was Goliath. And Goliath actually was smaller than inch on all sides. But Goliath didn't have a good center payload. It just had bump centers. That's all it had, and light centers. CLEO was the first of the ant robots.$$Okay.$$When I decide that, okay, let's understand ants, let's understand how to, how to use--you know, I'm marinating in Rodney's group, with all these grad students talking about biological systems, talking about artificial intelligence. Mya Matrique (ph.) was there. She is now I think a dean at USC [University of Southern California]. But she built twenty robots, toaster-sized robots to look at collective behaviors. My mentor, Anita, was working on micro-robots, micro-motors, in particular, for micro-robots. So I'm surrounded by all this stuff. So people always say, you know, you have this breakthrough. I go, yeah, yeah, yeah. I can't take all that much credit for it, really. It was the environment I was in, and the obvious thing to do, well, let's try and build some ants. Let's try to understand insect behavior with enough fine grain detail to try to get the robots to do some of these things. That's what, that's the task I set out for my Bachelors' thesis.$$Okay. So, the program you were working with Anita was the Undergraduate Research Opportunities program? That's what it was called?$$That's right.$$I just wanted to get that in the record.$$UROP is how it's pronounced.$$UROP, okay.$$Yeah, no one ever says, "Undergraduate Research Opportunities program". It's UROP.$Okay, now, did your pet ants have anything--did they inform your research on some level?$$Well, not at the PhD level, right. So the insects are really, they give you an existential proof of that, of the fact that these systems do work, and they do solve these problems. And they do them in ways that are, sometimes surprising, sometimes unexpected. They use far less information than we think. They have less mobility, they make all these mistakes. They, they sometimes communicate in very subtle ways. They leverage tremendous variation between individuals to their best advantage. So all the ants don't make decisions, do something at the same time. Some ants do some things, some ants something else--I'll wait until it gets five degrees warmer before I leave the nest, right. So you have this natural smooth, you know, the temperature increases and the ants colony responds slowly. Then the temperature decreases, and they respond slowly as each individual worker gets to their different threshold. So you have all these, you know, honey bees, when they go out and find their new nest sites. They come back, and they need what's, they've figured out, is a quorum to make a decision. They don't vote. It's not a majority thing. They need a certain number of bees to like something and then off they go. That seems to be the model. And so now, algorithmically, how are they doing this? And, you know, one of my favorite professors at Cornell tells us--he's only (unclear) been studying this for many years. He just wrote a book on the honey bee. They actually have been by my bed for a year and a half now, and not made it past the preference.$$Did you say 'Honey Bee Democracy'?$$'Honey Bee Democracy' is his latest book.$$All right.$$And it's really about how they make decisions and how they share information to make group decisions. And I wish I'd read it because I can't speak too intelligently, but the core, he was talking to us, and I spoke with him about it. He was looking at this notion of quorum, where there's a certain number you get to, and then it's time to go. I mean that lets you--'cause you can guarantee to get to a certain number. You can't guarantee to break a tie. Look at our current government, right? You can't guarantee to do that. And if you're a honey bee community, and you're sitting on the side of a tree waiting to move to a new site, you have to guarantee to end this decision-making process. You have to guarantee to go somewhere at some point in time. So, you know, maybe this is why they do that. I have to read the book.$$Okay, okay--$$But that kind of, you know, high level, you know, these things have to work, right? These insects use them. That's where the inspiration comes, looking at the kind of sensors that the animals use to solve their problems. And one of the guys (unclear) Zurich, E.T.H. Zurich, Ruder Revanner (ph.). He's studying dessert ants and looking at how they navigate. And he's looked at it in every which way. He's just phenomenally, phenomenally good. And he comes with, okay, well, here's--turns out, they count their steps. Now, it turns out they have solar compass. They know not only where the sun is, but they also have an, accurate clocks. They know what time it is, and they can now compute their compass angle based on the sun and their clock. I mean it's just like, whoa, really? And he's done experiments in the wild. He comes back to the lab. He's gotten down almost to the neurological, almost the neuronal level of where these information interests are, where they're storing the landmarks, and how they're doing the navigation. So that kind of, that kind of field, low-level stuff--I mean it's the same problems I have to solve with my robots. Okay.$$Okay, so--$$I can go on, by a lot, (unclear)--$$I know, and I want you to.