|The 31-inch long robotic cockroach|
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Source: SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
URBANA--What do you get when you bring together a computer engineer, a neuroscientist and an entomologist who has spent 20 years studying cockroaches?
A robotic cockroach.
The 31-inch robot being built at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology is an agile six-footed critter that can walk across rough terrain. Someday, it might be used to find people in collapsed buildings, locate land mines, clean up nuclear waste or explore planets.
The front legs steer, the middle legs lift the body and the back legs push it forward. ``It's designed to walk exactly like a cockroach,'' said computer engineer Narendra Ahuja.
The robot illustrates the University of Illinois institute's pioneering method of research. Unlike most scientists, who rarely venture outside their narrow disciplines, Beckman Institute researchers routinely work with colleagues from widely divergent fields.
"In order to study and solve complex problems, you have to go beyond traditional boundaries,'' said Beckman Institute director Jiri Jonas.
Even the architecture of the five-story building is designed to bring together biologists, chemists, electrical engineers, computer scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, linguists, physicists and physiologists.
Labs and offices are on opposite sides of the building, so that researchers will bump into one another as they walk between their offices and labs. In strategically placed lounge areas, chance encounters develop into brain-storming sessions.
Now in its ninth year, the institute is gaining a national reputation. When Beckman recently advertised for two research fellows, 97 qualified applicants applied.
And the team approach to research is showing real-world results. The institute holds patents on a computer-controlled camera focus; a manufacturing process to make computer chips faster and more reliable; and medical technology to produce clearer images from MRI scans. Several other patents are pending.
The brick-and-reflective glass building dominates the north end of campus. Only the main library is bigger. An atrium running down the middle of the Beckman Institute is a block long.
About 1,000 researchers work at Beckman full or part time. They include faculty, postdocs, graduate students and undergrads.
Dress is casual--shorts and T-shirts in the summer--but the work is intense. Researchers often work late into the night. And nobody has tenure at Beckman. If a professor's work is subpar, or if he's a loner who doesn't like to collaborate, he will have to return to his U. of I. department.
"Our goal is to be the best in the world in multidisciplinary research,'' Jonas said.
There are three broad research areas:
* Biological intelligence. How the brain works, ranging from molecules in the brain to complex networks of brain cells.
* Molecular and electronic nanostructures. Nano means very small. Research includes efforts to reduce the size of electronic components on computer chips.
* Human-computer intelligent interaction. Includes robotics, artificial intelligence, computer vision and human perception and performance. In one project, researchers are developing a talking ``computer companion'' that would converse with a user and perhaps even understand his moods.
"People who are lonely could talk to the computer instead of typing to it,'' said Tom Huang of the human-computer group.
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