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Visionaries

35 Innovators Under 35

Visionaries

By looking at things a bit differently from everyone else, they find powerful new uses of technology.

Nora Ayanian, 34

University of Southern California

To build better machines, a roboticist goes far outside her field for guidance.

Nora Ayanian calls robots people. It’s not some weird affectation; it helps her with her work.

She’s a computer scientist who thinks machines should work together to get things done. Let’s say a farmer wants to have drones autonomously survey crops and take soil samples. You couldn’t program each drone with the same set of commands, because each would have a different task and would have to solve different problems as it navigated. You know what is good at solving problems on the fly, in a group that draws on various skills from different individuals? People. 

So Ayanian studies robot coördination by studying people. One way is by having groups of humans play a simple video game that limits their senses and stifles communication. They need to figure out how to do “something meaningful” together, as she puts it, such as arranging their on-screen figures into a circle. Ayanian watches how people coöperate on such tasks with as little information as possible. 

Why not just create a dictator robot—one machine that sees the whole field and directs other drones? Well, Ayanian counters, what happens when the dictator robot runs out of power? Or crashes? Distributed and diverse teams, she says, are always better at problem-solving, once they learn to work together.

Ryan Bradley