“My robots can assist us in our daily lives”

Josie Hughes © Alain Herzog / 2021 EPFL

Josie Hughes © Alain Herzog / 2021 EPFL

Josephine Hughes, a recently appointed professor of robotics at EPFL’s School of Engineering, has developed robots with the potential to change our lives. We sat down for a chat with this ambitious inventor.

Josephine – who goes by Josie – has been interested in robots ever since she was a little girl. At elementary school in southern Britain, she even took part in robot contests with her twin brother. And her enthusiasm has only grown with time. “I started by playing with my brother’s Lego robots,” says Josie. “Then for the contests, I created dancing humanoid robots. I even dressed them up in costumes. What I really enjoy in my field is the creativity involved in designing the machines and programming the software that runs them.”

A very young professor

Josie obtained her PhD from Cambridge and worked as a postdoc research assistant at MIT. She joined EPFL as a tenure-track assistant professor at just 29 years old, making her one of the youngest researchers to do so. And despite her young age, she has no doubts about her chosen career path. “I like what I do, and that has kept me going throughout my studies and postdoc work. I’ve always known what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go,” says Josie.

A hand robot

At her first lab, Josie moved from the dancing humanoids of her teenage years to more sophisticated inventions. At MIT, she developed a robotic arm that can brush disabled patients’ hair, for example, and a robot that can pick lettuce in a field. “I design robots that can assist us in our daily lives,” she says. “Right now I’m working on a robotic hand with sensors that I hope will be able to replicate as much of the complexity of a human hand as possible. I also want to develop agricultural robots that will enable us to make better use of our food resources. My research combines data-driven design methods with next-generation materials that allow for more flexible robots.” Josie hopes that we will eventually use her robots in our everyday lives. But she realizes that there’s a long way to go between building a prototype and turning it into a concrete application.

Bringing together a range of skills

Originally from the UK, Josie is happy to be able to draw on the extensive robotics know-how at EPFL and take advantage of the many opportunities for cross-disciplinary research. “It’s a very stimulating environment, and Switzerland is a great place to enjoy it,” she says. Josie is now looking for PhD students and postdocs to join her lab. “What’d I really like is to build a team with a wide range of skills – machine learning, robotics control systems, I’m open to different possibilities,” she says.

When she’s not in the lab, Josie can be found on the squash court or training for a triathlon. And she’s decided to add yet another string to her bow by signing up for French classes. She describes herself as energetic and creative – and a little disorganized – and she can’t wait to see her robot designs come to life at EPFL.