The MPG honors Block with this prestigious award for her fundamental and innovative research in the field of human-robot interaction through the creation and evaluation of intelligent hugging robots.
Stuttgart – Alexis E. Block will be awarded the Otto Hahn Medal for the year 2021 on the occasion of the Annual Meeting of the Max Planck Society on June 22, 2022 in Berlin. Alexis is the first doctoral student from MPI-IS to win this prize from the new research direction of intelligent systems. The MPG honors Block with this prestigious award for her fundamental and innovative research in the field of human-robot interaction through the creation and evaluation of intelligent hugging robots.
“I am extremely honored to receive the Otto Hahn Medal in recognition of my research. It feels wonderful to have my hard work acknowledged in this way. This research would not have been possible without the support of all three of my doctoral supervisors: Otmar Hilliges, Roger Gassert, and especially, Katherine Kuchenbecker. I am immensely grateful for their guidance and encouragement,” says Alexis Block.
Block, who is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Biomechatronics Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), started her doctoral studies at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (MPI-IS) in Stuttgart in July 2017. There she enrolled in the Max Planck ETH Center for Learning Systems (CLS), a research partnership between MPI-IS and ETH Zurich which promotes cross-disciplinary research in the field of learning systems. Block earned her doctorate degree from ETH Zurich in 2021, where she spent one and a half years in the Computer Science Department and was co-supervised by Otmar Hilliges and Roger Gassert. After defending her dissertation in August 2021, she was selected as a 2021 Computing Innovation Fellow (CIFellow) to support two years of postdoctoral research at UCLA.
In her doctoral research at MPI-IS and ETH, Alexis E. Block investigated how a robot could deliver a high-quality embrace to a human. Particularly the novel robotic platform called HuggieBot received international attention. This human-sized hugging robot has two padded arms, an inflatable sensing torso, and a face screen mounted to a rigid frame. A camera above the screen visually senses the user at the start of the interaction and as they approach, and torque sensors on the shoulder pan and elbow flexion joints are used to embrace the user with a comfortable pressure. Block developed HuggieBot together with Katherine J. Kuchenbecker, who is her primary doctoral advisor and the Director of the Haptic Intelligence Department at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems.
“Hearing that Alexis won the Otto Hahn Medal truly delighted me on several levels. First, selection is very competitive, with multiple external experts writing a critical evaluation of each nominated thesis. I’m happy her dissertation was appraised so positively,” says Kuchenbecker. She continues, “second, I saw how hard Alexis had to work to accomplish her research vision for HuggieBot, building a custom robot from scratch and running very complicated human experiments, particularly during the pandemic. Finally, I’m particularly proud because Alexis was my first doctoral student at MPI-IS and was always a trailblazer for our lab. I wish she had a copy of HuggieBot with her in Los Angeles so I could send her a congratulatory hug!”
Alexis’s dissertation describes the creation of four iteratively improved versions of HuggieBot and its evaluation through six user studies. Through this process, Block created and validated 11 hugging design guidelines for robots to provide their hugging partners with a high-quality embrace. She developed the HuggieChest for the robot to simultaneously soften the robot and sense user contacts. To make the robot responsive to user intra-hug gestures, she created a detection and classification algorithm to detect both coarse and fine user contacts on the torso, and created a probabilistic behavior algorithm based on use preferences for how the robot should respond to detected intra-hug gestures. Block’s work culminated in investigating the emotional and physiological effects of embracing HuggieBot compared to hugging a friendly but unfamiliar person. She found that the benefits and enjoyment of a robot hug are similar to those from another person!
Kuchenbecker and Block go back many years. The two have been working together for almost a decade. Block, who calls herself a “Kuchenbecker for Life,” first met her advisor as an undergraduate student. The summer after her sophomore year, Alexis joined Katherine Kuchenbecker’s Haptics Lab at the University of Pennsylvania for an independent summer research project as part of the University Scholars program. In 2016, Alexis completed her bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics and two minors in Mathematics and Engineering Entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania. Together, through hardware and software upgrades to a pre-existing Willow Garage PR2 (Personal Robot 2), they created and tested HuggieBot 1.0. Halfway through Block’s master’s degree, in 2017, Katherine Kuchenbecker moved to Germany to become a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart. The same year, Block received her master's degree in Robotics from the University of Pennsylvania and then also moved to Germany to continue her studies as a doctoral student.
“I would like to become a faculty member at a research university,” responds Block when asked about her future. “I plan to apply this coming fall. I am also interested in one day creating my own robotics start-up.” Given her Otto Hahn Medal and all the press attention HuggieBot has received, it seems clear that Alexis E. Block is on a great trajectory to achieving that future.
About the Otto Hahn Medal
Every year since 1978, the Max Planck Society has awarded the Otto Hahn Medal to up to 30 young scientists and researchers for their outstanding scientific achievements, mostly in connection with their doctorate. The medal, which is endowed with 7,500 euros, aims to motivate talented young people to pursue a career in research. The award is presented during the Max Planck Society’s General Meeting in the following year.
As President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Otto Hahn attended to the successful transformation of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society into the Max Planck Society starting in 1946. When the Max Planck Society was founded in Göttingen on 26 February 1948 to continue the work and the institutes of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, he became the MPG’s first president.
One famous awardee of the Otto Hahn medal is Reinhard Genzel, Director at the MPI for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching. He was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for his observations of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way. The first major research prize in his career was the Otto Hahn Medal, which he received in 1980.