Teaching robots to think, create and learn

PSU alumna explores the intersection of human cognition and artificial intelligence.

It’s no longer the stuff of science fiction. The day where intelligent robots will solve problems, offer new ideas and collaborate with humans is closer than we think – and PSU alum Tesca Fitzgerald is ready for it.

Fitzgerald is a fifth-year PhD student in the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. By examining the intersection of human cognition and artificial intelligence, she hopes to teach robots to adapt to unexpected problems – to “think” for themselves.

“People learn throughout our entire lives and build upon those experiences. Robots should do the same thing,” she says. “They need to be dynamic — adjusting to problems and situations they’ve never seen before.”

Fitzgerald envisions a future where robots have the ability to not only perform complex tasks but to learn as they go along. This could have huge implications, she says, on a wide range of applications, including the use of robots to aid the elderly or people with disabilities.

"We're already making robots that do amazing things," Fitzgerald says. "What if we could make them seem more human?"

Fitzgerald's fascination with "thinking" machines goes back to her youth. She taught herself to read at age 2 by engaging with a literacy computer game called Reader Rabbit. At age 5, she was building and programming machines as part of a competitive robotics team.

After essentially skipping high school to enroll in community college, Fitzgerald transferred to Portland State where she studied computer science. At age 16, she became one of the youngest students ever to graduate with her bachelor’s degree.

After she completes her PhD program, Fitzgerald says her goal is to be a research professor. She says adapting to the rigors of her life as a researcher has been tough but exactly what she wants to be doing.

"I'm very driven and passionate about what I do."