Five Minutes with Malcolm MacIver

MacIver talks about his research, his work with students and what he thinks helps differentiate the MSR program

In 2009, Professor Malcolm MacIver received the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering from President Obama at the White House. The award is the highest recognition given to emerging scientists by the government.

Today, he is one of a number of esteemed faculty members within Northwestern Engineering’s Master of Science in Robotics (MSR) program.

Malcolm MacIverProf. MacIver believes a person’s body’s mechanical intelligence can be just as important, if not more important, than what’s going on in that person’s head. With that in mind, his primary scientific efforts revolve around understanding how animal mechanics and sensory abilities fit together. He seeks to gain that understanding by using approaches from neuroscience, animal behavior studies, robotics, mathematical modeling and computer simulations.

Prof. MacIver took some time to talk about his research, his work with students and what he thinks helps differentiate the MSR program from any other program like it.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about robotics today?

I used to think that the biggest misconception is that the field mostly works on humanoid robots — this is what many people think of when they think about robots. But the advent of autonomous cars — typically referred to in a robotics context — might have fixed that, along with the massive popularity of the Big Dog (and brethren) videos from Boston Dynamics.  

Now, I am starting to think that the biggest misconception is regarding how robots are going to impact the world of work. I agree with some analyses from labor economists that the real threat of robotics in the workplace is not massive unemployment, but rather further labor market polarization — with some small group of people doing much better and many doing worse. It will amplify inequality trends already present unless policies are put in place to mitigate that. 

How do you summarize your research interests to someone with little to no background in engineering?

I'm really intrigued by how animals have evolved to do the clever things they do. This collaboration between body and brain has many facets that quickly lead you to many interesting problems. The areas the lab works on the most are sensory systems and their connection to movement. Those movements span immediate reactions like a simple transformation of sensory input to delayed responses that integrate sensory data with models of the world. Some of the questions are biological, but the robotics is very important since it is entirely unforgiving if you don't have the right answer. 

What do you enjoy most about being involved with the Northwestern Engineering MSR program?

I've worked with some excellent students on problems that have lived on in the lab far after the project was finished. One of the aspects that is helpful is the relatively short time horizon for the work, which welcomes projects that might not work for a PhD project. 

What is a student project that you've overseen that surprised you in one way or another?

One of the early MSR students worked on connecting one of our electrosense robots to a virtual reality system. This turned into a project where we had humans doing tasks using an entirely foreign sensory system (sensing with electric fields, which only certain fish are capable of) in a hybrid augmented reality / VR system. There were surprising results from that work regarding the need for "virtual fixtures" representing information targets to get the task done more effectively.

What would you say to a prospective student considering the MSR program?

I've never interacted with a group of master’s students that were as ambitious and curious as those I find in the MSR program. So, prepare to be inspired and pushed by the work ethic and thoughtfulness of the other people in your program!