Maja Matarić named 2024-2025 Athena Lecturer

ACM award celebrates contributions of women computer science researchers

Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)

Maja Matarić is the Chan Soon-Shiong chair and distinguished professor of computer science at the University of Southern California and 2024-2025 ACM Athena Lecturer award recipient.
Maja Matarić’s research on distributed robotics, behavior-based systems, human-robot interaction, and socially assistive robotics are acknowledged by her Athena Lecturer award.

The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) recently named Maja Matarić as the 2024-2025 ACM Athena Lecturer. Matarić is the Chan Soon-Shiong chair and distinguished professor of computer science at the University of Southern California (USC).

Matarić, who is also a principal scientist at Google DeepMind, is recognized for her work in the field of socially assistive robotics, including research, evaluation, and technology transfer, and work in multi-robot coordination and human-robot interaction. 

Matarić was formally presented with the ACM Athena Lecturer Award at the annual ACM Awards Banquet, which was held June 22 at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Calif.

Athena award comes with Two Sigma $25,000 honorarium

Initiated in 2006, the ACM Athena Lecturer Award celebrates women researchers who have made fundamental contributions to computer science. It includes a $25,000 honorarium provided by Two Sigma

Each year, the Athena Lecturer honors a preeminent woman computer scientist. The Athena award gains its name from the Greek goddess of wisdom, whose knowledge and sense of purpose, the ACM said, epitomizes the strength, determination, and intelligence of the Athena Lecturers. The Athena Lecturer is invited to present a talk at a major ACM conference of her choice.

Matarić’s research includes a wide range of robotics topics

A graduate of the University of Kansas, Matarić earned a master’s of science in computer science and a Ph.D. in computer science and AI from MIT. Her publications cover a wide range of topics, including distributed robotics, machine learning, human-robot interaction, and socially assistive robotics, and are highly cited.

Matarić is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AMACAD), and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and ACM, and recipient of the United States Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Math, and Engineering Mentoring.

Matarić is the founding director of the USC Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center. 

Behavior-based systems and distributed robotics fleet management

Matarić made fundamental contributions to autonomous cognition and interaction. The ACM said her early work demonstrated that behavior-based systems (BBS) could be endowed with representation and have the expressive power to plan and learn. Her Toto system used BBS to learn maps online and optimize its behavior. 

Matarić researched distributed algorithms for scalable control and fleet management of robot teams and swarms, enabling robot teams to collaborate on tasks including formations, exploration, and foraging. Prior to her work, nearly all research was restricted to single robots or pairs, the ACM said. Her contributions to the theory and practice of multi-robot coordination showed that complex collective behaviors could be composed of basic behaviors in a principled way, bringing rigor to the then nascent discipline of distributed robotics. 

Her work on distributed robotics and multi-robot coordination and learning provide a formal analysis of robot coordination approaches, describing formal and practical limitations, and contributing scalable multi-robot task allocation algorithms.

Socially assistive robotics for healthcare and education

Matarić and her lab named the field of socially assistive robotics (SAR). SAR focuses on assistive human-robot interaction (HRI) enabling machines to help through social rather than physical support.

The field aims to gain novel insights into human behavior through human-machine interaction and to develop systems that provide personalized assistive HRI in convalescence, rehabilitation and therapy healthcare, and education and training. Matarić’s work has developed HRI and SAR methods that modeled user engagement, personality, group moderation, and persuasive interaction dynamics in complex and uncertain real-world environments. 

Her work is known for evaluation studies in real-world settings such as schools, rehabilitation centers, and homes, including users with challenges, such as with post-stroke rehabilitation, cognitive and social skills training for children with autism spectrum disorders, cognitive and physical exercise for elderly users and Alzheimer’s patients, study support for students with ADHD, and therapy support for students with anxiety.

Matarić leads STEM outreach to low-income K-12 students

Matarić has been a strong mentor and advocate for underrepresented groups. She has mentored early career women via CRA-W and helped to place large numbers of women and members of other underrepresented groups in graduate programs and faculty positions. Since 2019, she has also led USC Viterbi’s K-12 STEM Outreach Program, which included sending out students and faculty to mentor students in surrounding, largely low-income schools around Los Angeles, and running classes and workshops for high school teachers on campus at USC. 

Her book “The Robotics Primer” is geared toward K-12 students and undergraduates. The book explains both the principals of robots and offers a practical guide to building programmable hands-on robots.

“Maja Matarić has been one of the key figures responsible for significant advances in robotics in recent years,” said ACM president Yannis Ioannidis. “Her work with Toto laid the foundation for robot control, and the development of socially assistive robotics - which is poised to transform education, eldercare, and many other areas - owes a great deal to her innovations. 

“The Athena Award also recognizes those who have dedicated themselves to mentoring. Matarić has not only guided her students at USC, but she has taken the initiative in introducing K-12 students to her field,” Ioannidis added. “As a mentor and as a champion of women in her field, Matarić stands in a league of her own.”

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Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)

Maja Matarić is the Chan Soon-Shiong chair and distinguished professor of computer science at the University of Southern California and 2024-2025 ACM Athena Lecturer award recipient.

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