Dr. Eduardo Torres-Jara, 40, developed his love for technology as a child in Ecuador. His parents encouraged him and provided him with tools to expand his knowledge and interest. “I’ve always liked technology. I was always building machines and robots with my Legos,” says Torres-Jara. “My dad always owned the newest calculators and computers– those were my toys.” Today, Torres-Jara still builds his own toys, except now they are not simple Legos, but rather one-armed robots equipped with artificial skin and intelligence.
Dr. Torres-Jara was born and raised in Cuenca, Ecuador, where he lived with his parents and two younger sisters. He attended Colegio Tecnico Saleciano High School, where he learned about electricity, carpentry, and mechanics. Later, he attended the Escuela Politecnica del Ejercito (ESPE) in Quito, where he studied and graduated with a degree in Electronic Engineering. “I always wanted to study electronics, but I also wanted to combine it with mechanics, computers, neuroscience and artificial intelligence,” says Torres-Jara.
As he graduated from college, robotics and artificial intelligence technology was in the midst of a revolution, led by Professor Rodney Brooks from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “When I learned about Brooks and the way he was changing things I just loved the idea and I said to myself, I have to go there, and I decided to apply to MIT.” Torres-Jara said he only knew about MIT from reading about it in one of his father’s Reader’s Digest magazines.
Torres- Jara’s acceptance to MIT was a long process. To begin with, MIT accepts only about 10% of the best applicants in the world. Then, after overcoming the odds and being accepted into MIT, a postal strike in Ecuador almost caused him to lose his full scholarship, “I remember that while I was in the application process, there was a postal strike in our country; lots of letters and packages were delayed, others never arrived. I thought I did not qualify for a scholarship, so if that was true I wasn’t going to be able to attend MIT even if I got accepted” he explained. Eventually, however, he finally enrolled as an MIT student with a full scholarship, working directly with his idol Professor Brooks.
“If you have an objective, you cannot give up. Plans will change, but you have to follow your dreams. Sometimes you will find it hard, but the key to success is to not give up, just keep on going,” said Torres-Jara.
During his time at MIT, he studied artificial intelligence and sensory manipulation while working towards his Master’s and PhD degrees. He explains that artificial intelligence makes machines much more advanced. An example of this is embodied intelligence, which studies how intelligence emerges as a result of sensorimotor activity, constrained by the physical body and mental developmental program.
“Imagine that at nighttime a person wakes up and tries to find the TV remote without looking and only by touching and having an idea of where that remote can be- this idea applies to my robots,“ he said. Torres-Jara took this idea and began to conceptualize for his PhD thesis a robot with the ability to manipulate objects simply through the use of touch sensors. As a result of his work, Obrero was created.
Obrero is a one-armed robot with artificial skin on its fingertips and palm that can not only sense the presence and magnitude of forces applied to it, but also the direction from which those pressures are being applied. For example, if a glass bottle were to start slipping out of a robot’s hand, the artificial skin would tell the robot how the bottle was falling and allow it to recover its grip before the bottle fell to the floor.
Obrero was funded by the Swedish company Asea Brown Boveri (ABB), a leader in technology, and by NASA. “When we initially talked to ABB, they said that robots can do very few of the tasks that a human worker can accomplish without any effort. Therefore, I realized I needed a robot capable of manipulation. I named it Obrero because the word robot in Czech means worker, and worker in Spanish means Obrero,” he explained.
In robotics research, there are typically groups specially dedicated to improving robots’ physical attributes, another to improving controls, another to developing software, and a final group to make sensors. Often, these groups work and function independently. Torres-Jara notes that his research has begun to change this model. “In my approach, physically represented by Obrero, all groups were considered at the same time, and that is why such changes were achieved.”
For his work, Torres-Jara was recipient of the highly regarded 2011 NASA Tech Brief Award. His future goal is to be able to have his work touch more people. “There is a saying at MIT that ‘we want to change the world’. Currently, I am in the process of changing the world in academic places. But I want to influence a country, a region. I want to expand myself,” said Torres-Jara.
He believes that his home country of Ecuador has the potential to develop innovative technology but that there is a need for clear objectives where all interested parties work together towards a goal. “We have capable people and natural resources. We don’t have to wait long periods to produce local technology- there are daily necessities that can be fulfilled with local technology,” he stated.
Currently, Torres-Jara is a Professor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He was also an Invited Speaker to the 2011 Japan-America Frontiers of Engineering Symposium. His hobbies include meditation, cooking, and martial arts, and when he has time, he enjoys going out with his friends. For all his achievements, Dr. Eduardo Torres-Jara is an example of Ecuadorian human talent.
“I don’t consider myself a role model; I’ve just done the best I could. We should look for what makes us happy and for the most important things in our lives, and when we do that, we should focus and get them,” he concluded.