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Interview with Ruzena Bajcsy

Interview with Ruzena Bajcsy

"We do not only see, we look; we do not only touch, but we feel.  I made this into an engineering agenda." --Ruzena Bajscy




Dr. Ruzena Bajcsy was appointed Director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interests of Society (CITRIS) at the University of California, Berkeley on November 1, 2001. Prior to coming to Berkeley, she was Assistant Director of the Computer Information Science and Engineering Directorate (CISE) between December 1, 1998 and September 1, 2001. As head of National Science Foundation’s CISE directorate, Dr. Bajcsy managed a $500 million annual budget. She came to the NSF from the University of Pennsylvania where she was a professor of computer science and engineering. Dr. Bajcsy is a pioneering researcher in machine perception, robotics and artificial intelligence. She is a professor both in the Computer and Information Science Department and in the Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics Department at Berkeley. She is also a member of the Neuroscience Institute and the School of Medicine. She is also director of the University of Pennsylvania’s General Robotics and Active Sensory Perception Laboratory, which she founded in 1978. Dr. Bajcsy has done seminal research in the areas of human-centered computer control, cognitive science, robotics, computerized radiological/medical image processing and artificial vision. She is highly regarded, not only for her significant research contributions, but also for her leadership in the creation of a world-class robotics laboratory, recognized world wide as a premiere research center. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, as well as the Institute of Medicine. She is especially known for her wide-ranging, broad outlook in the field and her cross-disciplinary talent and leadership in successfully bridging such diverse areas as robotics and artificial intelligence, engineering and cognitive science.   

Dr. Bajcsy is one of the co-founders of HASTAC.  She was there, one of the nation’s most eminent engineers, at all the very first meetings, eloquently describing the importance for humanists, artists, scientists, social scientists, engineers, and computer scientists to be thinking through and addressing the Grand Challenges facing the world together.     

The questions here are posed by HASTAC co-founder Cathy N. Davidson.


Q: Tell us a little about how you became interested in engineering and about the work you consider to be your most important contribution(s) to the field.

A: My father was a civil engineer and I was good at math so there was, from my early childhood, interest in engineering. My most important work is from the 1980’s when I developed a theory/concept of Active Perception, when I brought together Signal processing and Control engineering. I stated, motivated by psychologist J.J Gibson: we do not only see, we look; we do not only touch, but we feel. I made this statement into an engineering agenda.


Q: Why did you, at this point in your career, decide you wanted to move into the humanities and teach Berkeley students in the humanities and the sciences?  

A: All my previous career before I came to UC Berkeley was building autonomous robots. I established a robotic laboratory at University of Pennsylvania around 1979, called GRASP lab (General Robotics and Active Perception), which was built on interdisciplinary bases bringing together Electrical Engineering faculty, Mechanical Engineering faculty and Computer Science faculty with a very few Cognitive Scientists. This lab is flourishing now and became a big attraction for superb faculty and students at the University of Pennsylvania. When I accepted the position to be the founding director for CITRIS (Center for Information technology research in service to society), I took it as a mantle to bring IT to the whole UC Berkeley Community, including the Humanities. This was in 2001. I regret to say that I was a bit too early and many of the humanist did not respond positively to my call, but I am happy to say that now at UC Berkeley, the digital humanities, including digital archeology, are quite active. It takes time to penetrate established areas with new technologies.


Q: How do you think Humanists, Artists, Scientists, and Social Scientists can work together to address the grand challenges the world faces today?

A: I very much believe that humanities at large have a great deal to contribute to today's problems, using IT as a tool. Consider history, we have so much to learn from history, not to repeat the same mistakes of the past. The technology can help to broadly communicate these lessons, bring communities together rather than divide them and show our common heritage. Take sociology, with today's wireless technology, we can gather data on various communities and learn about their needs/concerns and hence prevent crisis. There are many other applications where technologists and humanists, artists and social scientists, can do so much more than what is done today.


Q: I know you are passionate about public education. Do you have any words for us about the role of public education for the good of society?

A: Yes, very much so. I am deeply concerned about the lack of funding for public education. We in public universities, even in the best ones (UC Berkeley included), are very concerned how to retain and attract the best minds as faculty and students, which are the blood of our institutions. The lack of taxpayer support for higher education disturbs me deeply, especially now when the jobs will be calling more and more for a technically, but also culturally, highly-educated workforce. It does not take a great genius to see this, especially since the job market is more and more internationalized.


Q: HASTAC is dedicated to “changing the way we teach and learn.” What most needs to change about higher education to make it most useful to society?  

A: This is a hard question for me. I am 82, so I have seen great changes in teaching. When I was in university, the assumption was that students are mature enough to know why you are there and you will seek knowledge with your own initiative. It was the high school/gymnasium in europe where you had structured classes, with examples and detailed instructions.

This is not the case today! Students/parents are measuring what they are getting for their money. Many treat education as a purchasing commodity. Luckily this is not everybody, but it is a large enough constituent that it puts pressure on universities to comply.

My own feeling is that the standard repeatable knowledge you can get through technology, but when it comes to how to pose research questions or how to be creative, there is no easy formula. This is gained through interaction with teachers and student colleagues.

I remember at Penn, I was teaching robotics and I had some very smart students from The Wharton school. So I asked  “Why, if you think it’s so great to be in business school, are you here taking engineering classes?”  The answer I got back: “Because, Dr. Bajcsy, it’s such fun to be in a class with very smart people."



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