David Claveau

She walks, she talks, she hula dances. Her name is Caitlyn the Robot and she has three Computer Science students dedicated to breathing life into everything she says and does.

“We were like oh my gosh, we can get her to walk, we can get her to move her arm, we can get her to dance and do all this stuff!,” said one of Caitlyn’s programmers, senior Winter Smith, 21. “It was like a light had just turned on once we got her to speak for the first time!”

Smith and her friends, junior Maria Contreras, 20, and senior Jessica Perez, 22, have been working on programs for Caitlyn for over a year, ever since Perez met Caitlyn and Professor of Computer Science David Claveau, Ph.D., at the 2015 Science Carnival.

Perez was fascinated with Caitlyn, so Claveau offered to teach Perez how to write programs for the robot. Perez was hooked, and encouraged, especially as she believed she could not understand computer science — until she transferred to CSUCI.

“I had a bad teacher once (at another school) who told me I couldn’t do computer science,” Perez said. Perez started to believe in herself after meeting Computer Science faculty like Anna Bieszczad, Ph.D. and Claveau.

Perez was so enthralled with robotics that she invited her friends, Contreras and Perez, to program the little robot with her. The trio spent hours in the robotics lab in Sierra Hall, even coming in during the summer.

“I was going through a tough emotional time,” Smith said. “So Jessica said ‘I love working on this robot. Do you think you’d be interested in doing this with me?’”

It was just what Smith needed, and later on, their friend, Contreras joined them and became just as enthralled.

Claveau is always available for coaching, but gives them enough free rein to indulge their own curiosity about computer programming.

“He was never ‘all right you guys, you need to have this done by this week and this done by this week,’” Smith said. “He allowed us to develop this so it didn’t feel like something facilitated by a professor. This feels like something that was born out of innate curiosity.”

That’s exactly what Claveau’s goal is for all of his students: to encourage them to develop the same sort of fascination he has with the evolving relationship between robots and humans.

“We have much greater access to technology that will allow us to make the kinds of robots that will be able to walk around the house and speak in emotional ways,” Claveau said. “I think we’re in the hobbyist stage that’s comparable to the 1970s when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were putting together the first personal computer in the garage and people were kind of wondering, ‘What are we going to do with a computer in the house?’”

Robotics is a red hot field right now, Claveau said, so students who avail themselves of the robotics classes offered at CSUCI will have skills that will be in demand after graduation. Among the upper division classes offered are Mobile Robotics; Embedded Systems; Artificial Intelligence and Human-Computer Interaction. (Some of the courses are taught by Bieszczad and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Jason Isaacs, Ph.D.)

Caitlyn’s trio of programmers are teaching the robot to respond with human-like movements and emotion a number of ways, including hooking themselves up to finger sensors linked to Caitlyn.

“We’re measuring a human response,” Claveau explained. “The sensor takes Jessica’s pulse and skin moisture. If the robot expresses the emotion well, Jessica will respond. It’s a tutoring test for the robot.”

Claveau is also overseeing other Computer Science students as they construct wheeled and many-legged robots designed to perform tasks such as scientific surveys, security or even initial triage screening in a hospital setting.

From a closet in the robotics lab, Claveau pulled out a “work-in-progress” robot resembling a mechanical spider — Rodney the Robot.

“Rodney has got skinny legs and he’s really built to be light and nimble,” Claveau said. “Many of his parts are created with 3-D printing.”

Claveau and his trio of programmers are grateful for the CSUCI environment, which allows for undergraduate research and interdisciplinary collaboration.

“We’re a smaller school, so it’s easier for us to collaborate with other departments,” he said. “We can become more involved with Environmental Science & Resource Management, for example, and their interesting field work. Robotics is a great way to get computer science students out in the field.”

Caitlyn the Robot’s trio of devotees are grateful for the one-on-one coaching and their opportunity to discover a passion for robotics.

“You don’t think these opportunities are open to people who aren’t the best of the best,” Smith said. “So to be able to come in here and have our own space and work on this robot is a source of pride.”