New center at RPI seeks to bridge divide between humans and computers

Nov 15, 2012

A new Center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture (CCC) at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will focus on improving ways humans can interact with, and learn from computers.

The interdisciplinary center was launched earlier this week, and it will be housed within the school's Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy.

Professors and students showed off current research projects which include everything from teaching students to speak Chinese through virtual reality, storytelling, and games, to helping emergency responders manage a disaster like a hurricane by using enhanced data visualization to map debris and power outages.

RPI president Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson says these examples are just the beginning.

"What you will see will only hint at the possibilities before us. The most astounding and transformative discoveries and creations and inventions in fact owe their origins to serendipity."

Doctoral student, Naveen Sundar Govindarajulu showed off an animated synthetic character called Cogito, who is capable of recognizing himself in a mirror.

"This is a significant improvement because most existing AI [artificial intelligence] research assumes that if robots or synthetic characters have access to their names, or if they know their unique names then they are self-conscious, but this is neither necessary nor sufficient," says Govindarajulu.

One of the primary focuses of the CCC will be combining art and science to help humans process, understand, and interact with the vast amounts of information stored in computers.

Dr. Jonas Braasch is the CCC director. He says that the  human central nervous system  is capable of comparing and combining data on the fly.

"Understanding the specific processes will be key to developing data displays that allow users to navigate and interact with large data sets."

As part of the CCC, the school is also in the midst of constructing a new Emergent Reality Lab at the Rensselaer Technology Park in East Greenbush. It will be a room-sized space which will use 3-D computer graphics to create a virtual environment.

“The CCC truly fits and sits at the nexus of that natural world, the digital world, and the social world," says Dr. Jonathan Dordick, RPI's vice president for research.

The center was launched with $200,000 in seed grants from the Rensselaer Office of Research.

Three of its projects have also received close to a million dollars in funding from the National Science Foundation.