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Renowned engineer swarms Island University

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AMBER CASTILLO 
@AmberCastillo

The field of robotics is rapidly increasing with robots being predicted to help different industrial outlets by the year 2019.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi invited Dr. James McLurkin, senior hardware engineer at Google, for its Distinguished Speaker Series this fall. McLurkin started off with a student forum at 2 p.m. where students were welcomed to the Performing Arts Center to hear his speech, watch the demonstration with his robots and to ask any questions. The forum was followed by the public presentation at 8 p.m. were anyone was welcomed to attend as long as they purchased tickets prior with prices ranging from $30-$150 with VIP seating also available. McLurkin said he had been building things since he could remember and said he had always just been having fun with it.

“I was going to be an engineer no matter what,” McLurkin said. “What pulled me through it thought wasn’t the desire to build complicated electrical mechanical systems or wanting to go build robots, I was really just always having fun with it.”

McLurkin’s love for building things began as a child. He was constantly building things with anything he could get his hands on. 

“When I go out and build something, I’ve learned that you have to listen to your inner child,” McLurkin said. “There are some times in your life that you need to listen to you inner 12-year-old that tells you you want to go build space Lego mars things; you need to go do the thing that’s going to make you happy.”

McLurkin has continued to build things into his professional life, now using mother nature as a model for his current core research in developing algorithms for multi-robot systems. This software is for large swarms of autonomous robots.

“We built 108 robots and the whole point of these robots was to learn how to write software for a large number of robots,” McLurkin said. “We didn’t have a large number of them when I first started so we then had to build them and then we had to write software for them.”

The large swarm of robots was inspired by the behavior of ants and bees. The bots perform individual task that ultimately contribute to the group. The robots were originally created during McLurkin’s five-year post as lead research scientist at iRobot, one of the world’s leading robot companies.

McLurkin said he believes these robots will in time will be able to help in natural disasters such as forest fires, earthquakes and even explore Mars.

“It’s dangerous to go to space, so if we are sending people to Mars, we are almost certainly going to need robots to get the gear set up and check out the land,” McLurkin said. “For life back here on Earth, these robots would help tremendously with helping find things during natural disasters like the hurricane that hit here in the gulf or even just in the ocean finding new species.”

McLurkin is dedicated to illustrating and speaking to schools and universities about the 12 robot demonstration. He strongly promotes “Nerd Pride” and encourages students to step aside from what people think and take pride in the things they love such as building things.

“The biggest problem that the school system has really is a social problem,” McLurkin said. “When you’re in middle school and realize there are a lot of social cliques out there, there is a lot of pressure to be cool and not build robots. So those social pressures push people out of the interest of engineering. We need to make it fun, make science fun in those age groups.”

McLurkin said he even faced those social pressures as a teenager.

“My parents encouraged me and always gave me the resources that I needed,” McLurkin said. “The social pressure was never enough to make me stop doing what I loved and has so much fun doing, I was never going to be cool anyway so I doubled up on engineering books.”

McLurkin is currently working at Google where his team is working hard to get artificial intelligence out for everyone to use. Specifically, they are targeting makers, hackers and hobbyists. His team’s first release has been the voice kit, a small cardboard box that you could essentially talk to and sends the request to Google cloud. It then sends it back and tells you what you said, which is great if you are making software.

McLurkin advises those who want to pursue engineering particularly the discouraged, women or minorities, is to simply keep on doing it because if you love something then you aren’t really working. Choose something that you will have fun doing for the rest of your life.

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