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Maymoonah Toubeh: Making a heart for the Tin Man

This story was written in the fall of 2020 by GRAD 5144 (Communicating Science) student Alexis Hruby as part of an assignment to interview a classmate and write a news story about her research.

Maymoonah Toubeh wants to give hearts to robots.

    As a Ph.D. student in the electrical and computer engineering department at Virginia Tech, she has been working for five years now on creating safe robotic systems that will be able to respond to real-world stimuli.

    Toubeh grew up in nearby Richmond and also spent time in Florida, but her later, pre-college years were spent in the small country of Kuwait.

    Initially, she thought that she wanted to study to be an architect, but that option wasn’t available to her because she is not a Kuwait citizen.

This photo shows a young woman with long dark hair, light brown skin, jeans, a striped blue and white shirt, and a big smileseated at a desk that holds a computer screen and keyboard and a white drone or small aircraft of some kind.
Maymoonah Toubeh in a robotics testing lab. Photo courtesy of Maymoonah Toubeh.

    “I kind of ended up in computer engineering by accident because there were limited options at the universities in Kuwait, but I knew that I loved math,” she said.

    Although she fell into the field by accident, Toubeh grew to love computer engineering.

    “I really love the logic behind it,” she explained. “It gives expected outputs and it’s rational!”

    She attributes her current Ph.D. student status to professors during her time as an undergraduate who exposed her to her two passions: research and teaching.

    “My professors made me believe in myself and changed my life so much,” Toubeh said.

    Toubeh and her lab study artificial intelligence, but they are not working with the bulky human-like robots that we see in sci-fi movies. Instead, she works with small vehicle-like machines or flying drones. All of these small machines have a tiny “mind,” composed of a series of codes, written by computer engineers such as Toubeh.

    Artificial intelligence offers its fair share of challenges, Toubeh says. Robots are usually programmed by something called machine learning—giving the robot examples to train its “mind” on what to do when it encounters certain things. However, the real world is very different from a controlled lab setting.

This photo shows a young woman with long dark hair, light brown skin, jeans, a striped blue and white shirt, and a big smile holding a large black contraption that seems to have six propeller blades, a body, and two wheeled legs.
Maymoonah Toubeh holding one of the robots she works with. Photo courtesy of Maymoonah Toubeh.

    Toubeh wants to develop a way for these robots to deal effectively with uncertainties in their environment, challenges that scientists cannot always plan for. In a sense, robots need a moral code. She believes that coding a “heart” for robots is key to making them a safe, realistic technology in the future.

    For example, an autonomous vehicle must stop at a crosswalk even if it does not recognize what is crossing in front of it; it must “understand” that it is important to stop at every crosswalk. Some of her robots are even programmed to ask for help when they encounter foreign objects.

    “To me, safety is key,” Toubeh said.

    Toubeh gravitated toward robotics after taking a few classes with a professor at her university who served as a role model to her. She wants to make a positive impact on the world through her technological contributions. Toubeh loves her research, but she often notices that she is the only woman in the room. She hopes to become a professor to help students like her find their passions. She also hopes to be a role model to women wanting to join her field.