For some, robotics might conjure images of R2-D2 or C-3PO of Star Wars lore, but robotics long ago jumped from fictional concept to real-life applications that will only expand as technology advances.

Case in point: The University of Washington just launched a program to train graduate students in the growing field of robotics.

“As new robotic applications continue to transform industries and sectors from medicine to manufacturing, the demand for an innovative workforce able to design and implement meaningful robotics solutions is growing,” according to a blog announcing the program on the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) website.

GIX, a partnership between UW and Tsinghua University in Beijing, is a graduate school focused on technology and innovation located in a 96,000-square-foot facility in Bellevue’s growing Spring District. It is backed by a $40 million investment from Microsoft and opened in 2017 with UW offering a Master of Science in Technology Innovation (MSTI) degree initially focused on the integration of hardware and software to support connected devices, the blog explained.

But in September, UW launched a new robotics track in the MSTI program focused on programming, logic, and physical design of robotic hardware, the blog said. Applications for the fall 2021 MSTI program opened in October and are due by Jan. 18.

The cross-disciplinary robotics track bridges business, human-centered design, and robotics fundamentals, and will equip graduates to pursue myriad roles in product management, design, validation, and testing, the blog said.

UW anticipates seeing growth in demand for roles in the robotic industry where people can bring more of a program and project-management lens, and more of a user-centered lens, Linda Wagner, director of academic programs at GIX and senior lecturer in human-centered design and engineering at UW, said in an interview.

“We’re interested in what I would say is giving our cohort a set of skills that will really allow them to have a more interdisciplinary lens, looking at the evolution of the potential of that technology to be more mainstream, or more adoptable,” Wagner said.

The MSTI programs, in general, typically are interdisciplinary, looking at user-centered design and design thinking, business analysis, and entrepreneurship concepts, plus a hands-on technical focus, Wagner said. She added that the robotics track is really no different, but the technical focus is more about robotics and less about connected devices or the Internet of Things.

“That means that not only are you going to build a device that has intelligence to it, to maybe have sensors that process information, are able to offer new insights, but they are also going to be physically interactive with people in the environment,” she said.

“There have been a lot of really interesting advances in robotics for companies that are looking at robotics that can remove humans from a task,” Wagner said. “We’re more interested in looking at the human-robotic interaction and robotics that might assist people in accomplishing things.”

For example, think of assistive devices that might help seniors with physical limitations who want to age in place and still live independently, she said, adding rhetorically, Are there things to help people navigate the kitchen environment or other areas of the home?

Another example of assistive robotics can be seen in operating rooms, where significant advancements have occurred in robotic surgeries, she noted.

There may be many different types of interaction models for how you engage a robot or automate an experience or a process, Wagner said.

In the GIX blog, Anat Caspi, director of the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science at UW, who helped develop the robotics track, stressed the human-centered aspect of the program.

“Students should expect a dynamic experience with both the technology learning and the deployment of a real robotics system, but with an overarching understanding of bringing humanoid robotic agents into society and what that role might be like,” Caspi said. “My hope is that students bring an open mind and their own perspectives and think about how robotics can bring good into quality of life.”

GIX Building.

At Amazon, which uses robots in its massive fulfillment centers and is pursuing drone delivery of small packages, Siddhartha Srinivasa, director of robotics AI for Amazon, sees value in programs like that offered by UW.

“It’s very beneficial for students and business to have higher education institutions bring forth robotics programs like the one recently launched through the University of Washington,” Srinivasa said in an emailed statement.

“As new technology and innovations continue to drive advancements in areas such as safety and collaboration between people and robots, programs like the University of Washington track can further the development of much-needed expertise for those seeking to enter the workforce in the future,” added Srinivasa, who also is Boeing Endowed Professor at the School of Computer Science and Engineering at UW, but was not involved in developing the robotics track.

Wagner credited Blake Hannaford, technical director at GIX and UW professor of electrical and computer engineering, with proposing the track.

She said Hannaford made a compelling case about the significant growth of robotics interest in arenas that include high schools, undergraduate programs, summer camps, and clubs that will create a swell of students with some knowledge or experience in robotics who are interested in higher education programs to advance them on that track.

“That was the inspiration,” Wagner said.

The robotics track was envisioned and developed in collaboration with current GIX faculty by Hannaford and Caspi, and also draws on the robotics expertise of Maya Cakmak, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UW, and Josh Smith, professor of electrical and computer engineering and of computer science and engineering, and founding member of the MSTI’s interdisciplinary faculty group, the GIX blog said.

Students will get a chance to work with new robotic hardware, too.

“We recently purchased a bunch of robotics equipment, so we’re excited about them actually being able to roll up their sleeves and work with the equipment that we have,” Wagner said.