Six Questions: Matt Powers

Our third installment of Six Questions with Device Design Day speakers features Matt Powers, Senior Robotics Specialist at National Robotics Engineering Center.

Matt is interested in how robots and intelligent machines can solve real human problems and work with people to accomplish complex tasks. At Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, he applies theoretically inspired solutions to real-world robotics systems. With over 10 years of experience in robotics, machine learning and computational intelligence, Matt is a veteran of several high-profile DARPA research programs including the LAGR and LS3 programs, and has served as control lead for Georgia Tech’s DARPA Urban Challenge entry. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Georgia Tech.

What is your most cherished product, and why?

My wife and I keep a small collection of Japanese carbon steel knives in the kitchen. They are elegant, effective and a joy to use. However, it is humbling to think that one of the simplest possible machines (a knife is made up of just a single inclined plane) has over 500 years of R&D behind it. I enjoy the connection to history as much as the immediate gratification of using the knives.

What’s the one product you wish you had created/built/designed, and why?

I wish I had designed the Nest Learning Thermostat. It embodies much of what has become my view on the future of robotics. As a robot, it’s pretty simple. It senses the current temperature and actuates your existing HVAC system to maintain the desired temperature, much like any thermostat.  However, this device uses machine learning algorithms in conjunction with a beautiful user interface to learn how to control the temperature for you in a way that can save energy and hassle over a traditional thermostat. It’s the way in which this physical machine uses a little bit of intelligence to solve a real human problem that really excites me.

What excites you about today’s tools and technology?

I’m excited by the democratization of technology today.  It’s increasingly easy for hobbyists, enthusiasts and designers to get into playing with technology. Embedded computers and computer components are cheap, everybody has a suite of cameras and sensors in their cell phone and open source software projects exist to get you started on just about any application.  When you have so many different points of view working with technology, innovation is almost inevitable.

When do you first remember getting excited by the intersection of design and technology?

It was probably my fourth or fifth year of grad school. I was working on cool projects and feeling like I really understood the theoretical underpinnings of robotic technologies. However, I started to become frustrated as I didn’t see many people thinking about how these devices actually fit into people’s lives and do useful things for them. Designing robots became a pet cause of mine and I’ve been trying to learn more about the discipline of design since then.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned and who taught it to you?

“不乾不淨吃了沒病” – My Chinese mother-in-law
This is a Chinese pseudo-proverb (by which I mean I’ve met people who’ve heard it before, but I don’t think it’s in any textbook on Chinese proverbs).  It loosely translates to something like, “if you eat something dirty every so often, it will keep you from getting sick”. It’s meant as an admonishment against over-parenting. Kids need to eat some dirt to build up their immunities. I’ve taken it to heart in a lot of different ways, though.  Professionally, as engineers and designers, I think it’s very easy to “over-parent” our designs. We often fall in love with our software models, CAD drawings and wireframes early on in the design process. However, it’s important to get them out in the world to “eat some dirt” early and often. It’s by trying things out in the real world and seeing how they fail that we are able to evaluate and iterate and, ultimately, design a superior product.

What are your five pearls of wisdom you can give to the product design community?

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice.  But, in practice, there is.

It’s easier to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.

There’s a Chinese idiom, 畫 蛇添足, that translates to “adding feet to a drawing of a snake”.  The idea is that you’re ruining the effect of something by adding superfluous features.  Don’t add feet to your snakes.

There’s no better way to understand the world than to go out and experience it.

Learn a foreign language. I don’t think there’s any activity that better forces your mind to think about things in a different way than learning a new language.


Don’t miss Matt Powers’ presentation, “Designing Robots That Get Things Done”, at Device Design Day, August 3, 2012 in San Francisco. Registration is open, so reserve your spot and get ready for a day full of innovation and inspiration.