As part of our ongoing welcome to new faculty in the Department of Computer Science in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, we are delighted to share further details about the life, research, and teaching of Assistant Professor Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee. One of the initiatives Bhattacharjee leads at Cornell is the EmPRISE Lab, "a full-stack robotics lab leveraging tools from sensing, perception, planning, learning, and control to provide intelligent autonomy." The goal of the varied projects is to "delve deep into human-robot interaction, haptic perception, robot manipulation, and tactile sensing" for the purpose of enabling "robots to improve the quality of life of people with mobility limitations by assisting them with activities of daily living (ADLs)." But how did Bhattacharjee reach this place in his research—that is, where lab research is motivated by an impactful translation into the everyday lives of people in need of assistance and desiring renewed independence?
From Bhattacharjee’s hometown of Silchar, in the northeastern state of Assam, India to the university where he earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in Calicut, in the far southwestern state of Kerala is a trip of roughly two thousand miles. He made this four-day trip by train many times during his years at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) Calicut and never once doubted it was worth it.
“I always loved playing with devices,” says Bhattacharjee. “My mother tells me I would always take new toys apart and often could not put them back together.” To fully explore this interest in how things work, Bhattacharjee knew NIT was the place for him. “In a small town like Silchar, getting exposure to opportunities is the main hurdle,” he says. “My parents and I understood that I would need to be far from home to get the exposure to ideas and opportunities that I would need in order to really learn all I can." These days, as noted, Bhattacharjee has become an assistant professor in Cornell’s Department of Computer Science and most of the things he takes apart, he can now put back together successfully.
Bhattacharjee’s general interest in how things work became more focused during the third year of his undergraduate studies, when he joined a group of students working to develop the necessary theory and simulations that would enable the team to build a robotic cricket batsman. His plan was to return to Silchar for the summer and then, once he and his teammates got back to Calicut for their senior year, to actually build the robot.
As he was on the train for the long trip home he got the tragic news that his advisor on the robotic batsman project had died of a stroke. Bhattacharjee was shaken and sad about the unexpected death of a mentor and also unsure about how to proceed with the project. When his final undergraduate year started, Bhattacharjee and his teammates scrapped their ambitious plans for the batsman, since none of the other faculty at the university had the broad-ranging expertise to help them make their vision real. They found a different advisor who helped them design and create a robot that could avoid obstacles. “The new project was certainly simpler, in terms of what we were asking the robot to do,” says Bhattacharjee, “but it still allowed us to learn the many different aspects of robotic systems required to perform a task properly.”
The importance of the need for broad-ranging expertise in a roboticist stuck with Bhattacharjee. “Not only do you need computer science to create the algorithms for a robot and provide intelligence, but you need mechanical engineering to design the robots, electrical engineering to design the electronic circuitry in sensors and actuators, and—if these robots are going to work with people—you need cognitive and behavioral scientists involved as well. You need inputs from all of these different fields because, in the end, you are creating a real physical system that needs to act in the real world with and around real people.”
It was clear to Bhattacharjee that he would need to go to graduate school to learn much more. He earned his Master’s from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and then his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology). During his term at KAIST, Bhattacharjee developed a strong interest in haptics, which is the use of technology to stimulate the senses of touch and motion. And it was this interest that led him to apply to Georgia Tech. “When I applied to schools for my Ph.D., I didn’t choose based on the university,” says Bhattacharjee. “Instead I applied to schools based on specific labs and professors, since I knew what I wanted to study.”
At Georgia Tech, Bhattacharjee worked in the Healthcare Robotics Lab with his advisor Professor Charlie Kemp. His focus was on haptic perception for manipulation with potential applications to assistive robotics. After his Ph.D., he joined the University of Washington as a postdoc, where he worked on building a robot-assisted feeding system with Professor Siddhartha Srinivasa. And now that he is a member of the faculty at Cornell, he plans to continue his work in assistive robotics, as shown by his development of the EmPRISE lab. “My goal as a researcher is to enable robots to assist people with mobility limitations with the activities of daily living,” says Bhattacharjee. “And Cornell is the perfect place for me to do this work. The most important thing I was looking for was a supportive environment and, it may sound cliché, but I actually felt that when I 'virtually' visited and talked with people already here.”
It was essential to Bhattacharjee also that department, college, and university leadership show active support for robotics, and he notes that such support at Cornell is palpable. A third factor in his decision to teach at Cornell was the feeling of having a voice. “Even as a junior person in the department,” says Bhattacharjee, “I was included in every decision. I was asked my opinion about the design of the robotics space that will be part of the new building for the Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science. I have had inputs into faculty hiring decisions. I even had a chance to participate in the graduate student admissions process and talk with students about potentially joining my group in the fall. I feel like I have a voice here and that is so very important.”
Three of those admitted students will be in Bhattacharjee’s lab starting in the fall of 2021, where they will be tackling all sorts of difficult assistive technology challenges. “I am a problem-driven researcher,” says Bhattacharjee, “which means I want to solve particular problems, and whatever methods are necessary to solve those problems, I am willing to work at them. This approach makes it easy for me to communicate my vision for what we are trying to create. Once I describe the problem and strategize what a solution would accomplish, the next steps usually become clear.”
Since the technologies Bhattacharjee creates are designed to help real people with real problems, it is essential he has inputs from the people who will be assisted by these robots and other stakeholders. This means that his research and design process includes not only computer scientists and engineers, but also people with physical disabilities, caregivers, physical rehabilitation providers, and occupational therapists. It is an iterative process that relies on advice and feedback from the people who will actually use the technology.
“The goal of assistive robotics is to have a real impact in people’s lives by enabling them to do tasks that they were unable to do by themselves before,” says Bhattacharjee. “If all I am doing is publishing papers but not helping anyone, what is the point of that?”
Reporting by Chris Dawson and David LaRocca