'A bright-eyed kid with a telepresence robot' gets started on changing the world | Society for Science & the Public
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'A bright-eyed kid with a telepresence robot' gets started on changing the world

July 28, 2016
Ben Hylak showed his robot MAYA to President Obama at the 2011 White House Science Fair.
Ben Hylak showed his robot MAYA to President Obama at the 2011 White House Science Fair.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WHITE HOUSE.

Ben Hylak creates robots of the future, ones that can help nurses provide care. His robots use artificial intelligence, include video chat capabilities, ask patients how they're feeling, and communicate data back to doctors.

Ben participated in Broadcom MASTERS in 2011 and attends Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He recently started interning at SpaceX as an avionics engineer and was one of several Society alumni chosen to participate in the 2011 White House Science Fair.

His interest in technology and desire to change the world started with science fairs. Read the interview below to learn more about Ben's work with robotics and visit to the White House.

TELL US ABOUT THE WHITE HOUSE SCIENCE FAIR: Thank you, President Obama, for shining such a bright light on STEM just in time to make a difference in my generation — and enable my generation to make a difference.

When I shook President Obama’s hand in the State Dining Room four years ago, I was a bright-eyed kid with a telepresence robot and a desire to change the world. Now, I’m a bright-eyed college kid who’s actually doing it — from helping to alleviate poverty to working on rockets. And it all started with a science fair.


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I was invited to the White House Science Fair after a second place finish nationally in Broadcom MASTERS 2011 and a pile of blue ribbons from World MAKER Faire 2011 for my homemade telepresence robot MAYA (Me And You Anywhere).

MAYA was inspired by my grandmother and designed to visit the elderly. I’ll never forget how the concept seemed to resonate with President Obama. He said MAYA could "make life better for millions of families." With his characteristic wit and quickness, he promptly dubbed her, "Skype on Wheels."

EXPANDING A SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT TO SOLVE OTHER PROBLEMS: The president's enthusiasm helped me realize the scope of what I was working on. I made this robot for my grandmother, and it solved my problem.

But that’s not enough — the entire world had problems that needed to be solved. I want to live in a world where everyone has the same opportunity to succeed.

I want to live in a world where everyone has the same opportunity to succeed.

I started to realize that with our senior population growing exponentially, more than video chat was required. Robots of the future would need to assist nurses in providing quality, affordable care. So I developed another robot called ALAIR (Assisted Living Autonomous Internet Robot), a comprehensive robotic "nurse" that can take vitals, dispense medication, and detect falls, and it includes the "Skype on Wheels" feature the President liked.

ALAIR earned its own pile of awards. But mainly, it gave me the experience of developing autonomous robots to help humans.

WHAT ARE YOUR CURRENT SCIENCE GOALS: I'm double majoring in robotics engineering and computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

I’m not blind to how fortunate I’ve been. My dream has been supported by many entities, including Broadcom MASTERS.

I recently interned with SpaceX as an avionics engineer. It doesn’t get much more exciting than working for a company that was founded to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF GIVING BACK: At university, I became interested and active in humanitarian efforts for the poverty-stricken in Worcester. I started a Poverty Stoplight initiative in Worcester to help feed the homeless using leftover "swipes" from student meal cards.

I also work with the international Poverty Stoplight project Fundación Paraguaya. Instead of focusing only on income, Poverty Stoplight defines poverty using parameters like access to food, clean water, education, and mental health. It exposes specific problems that create poverty and allow them to be tackled.

I stand on the shoulders of giants. Thankfully they're tall, because we have a lot to fix!

I work hard, but I’m not blind to how fortunate I’ve been. My dream has been supported by many entities, including: Broadcom MASTERS, high school teachers who believed in me, one passionate 7th grade teacher who brought science fair to our school and really taught me to embrace what I loved, Intel, my professors, my family, mentors, the MAKE community, the White House Science Fair, and on and on.

I stand on the shoulders of giants. Thankfully the giants are tall, because we have a lot to fix!