Dr. Noa Agmon: Making Robots Smart
The Golem of Prague, Frankenstein - human culture is replete with autonomous fictional characters calibrated to do the bidding of their creators. But, in today’s world, imbuing machines with advanced artificial intelligence is no fiction.
Rather, it is a rapidly growing field called robotics, and Dr. Noa Agmon, a senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, stands among those at its forefront. She designs applications to help keep the world - and Israel - safer. With undergraduate and doctoral degrees from BIU and a Master’s from the Weizmann Institute, Dr. Agmon is part of BIU’s Returning Scientists Program, an initiative aimed at reversing Israel’s academic “brain drain” by offering promising young Israeli scientists who went abroad choice career opportunities at home.
Dr. Agmon, who was born in Israel and served in the IAF (Israel Air Force), spent two years doing research at the University of Texas at Austin after finishing post-doctorate work at the Weizmann Institute. This year, she became one of more than 40 returning biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, and brain researchers to accept faculty positions at BIU, joining a department that, in the latest Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), appears among the 100 best Computer Science departments in the world.
“At Bar-Ilan, I’m mainly continuing my research on multi-robot systems that I began in Texas,” says Dr. Agmon, a mother of four. Multi-robot systems are robots that “work autonomously as a team to achieve a goal together as efficiently as possible,” she explains.
Her specific area of interest is multi-robot patrol - “robots that need to jointly visit one or more points of interest or areas in order to monitor changes or catch infiltrators.” As an extension of her research, she heads the new Security Robotics Group at BIU, which uses robots to run student experiments primarily concerned with security and military applications. But, Dr. Agmon’s work goes beyond security, with applications in the humanitarian and industrial spheres, as well.
“Robots can be employed in dangerous situations to do work which is hazardous to humans, such as locating survivors after an earthquake, exploring a shipwreck, or sweeping for mines. On the other hand, I have a simple robot at home that vacuums my house. On a more sophisticated level, a team of robots can be programmed to clean a mall.”
Each situation is unique, she says, and meeting the respective intelligence requirements is what her work is about. “Robots have limited sensing and communication capabilities. My job is to figure out how to optimize those capabilities. For instance, patrolling on the ground is very different from patrolling a marine environment.” And, while several Israeli security companies use her technology—giving her an opportunity to see for herself that what she tested in the lab actually works—she says the beauty of what she does is in the potential for its broader use.
Globally, the implications for Dr. Agmon’s research are obvious. “I know my work is part of a bigger picture - that it has a direct bearing on what the world, and especially Israel, must do to keep people safe. It makes me happy that my job may have an impact on real-world problems and situations.”
Though “loving” her experience at the University of Texas, coming back to academia in Israel was never a question for Dr. Agmon. With a husband in the IAF and family living in the country, she says she never considered her stay abroad anything more than a long vacation. “My home is in Israel,” she contends, where she, her husband and children live on Moshav Kfar Uriya, between Rehovot - her childhood home - and Beit Shemesh. But, while her return to academic life here has gone smoothly, she acknowledges that for other Israelis the path back is often more challenging.
“It’s not that the work is harder in Israel. Academic work around the globe is generally the same - research, applying for grants, advising students. But, I think Israeli institutions can make it difficult for candidates who apply for positions here. Bar-Ilan is the exception and really facilitated my return, but I have friends who had a hard time with other institutions and some who are still waiting for offers.”
Dr. Agmon’s PhD advisor, Prof. Gal Kaminka, feels lucky to have her on board at BIU. “She is one of the world’s foremost experts on security robotics. Given the continuing growth in this area, we expect her research to be scientifically and commercially relevant. Her lab is the only one in Israel specializing in this area,” he says. As for her goals at BIU, Dr. Agmon plans to “do as much research as possible” and to expand the Security Robotics Group. “I want to get more and more students involved in robotics. It’s a fascinating and expanding field, one that opens up a whole world of interesting possibilities.”