TheGrio’s 100: James McLurkin, Engineer forges fleet of robots

The Grio's 100 - James McLurkin built his first robot in 1988. Today he produces software that can move a whole community of robots...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Much of the vivid imagination and futuristic fervor over the place of robots in the African-American experience was probably best captured in the Herbie Hancock song and video “Rock It.”

Meanwhile, hip-hop B-boys of the 80s turned robotic tics and automatic movements into a dance style – a style that serves as a punchline in modern day Dave Chappelle comedy sketches and wedding reception dance floors.

For James McLurkin, robots were more than just machines that made for catchy videos and creative choreography schemes. Keen with building LEGO constellations and designing video game programs as a kid, McLurkin built his first robot in 1988. Today he produces software that can move a whole community of robots with the unity of purpose, speed, and agility of ants.

By studying the group dynamic of bugs and insects that work as a collective, McLurkin has created algorithms that can program robots to move and work by mimicking those same communalistic behaviors. Just like a scene out of Attack of the Clones, McLurkin wants to develop the program that can move an army of robots on one single accord. Their efforts could be applied to a purpose like clearing a minefield.

McLurkin’s work in the Multi-Robot Systems Lab at Rice may end up facilitating that and more. As a professor once wrote of McLurkin in a recommendation letter: “In the future, the world will be full of teams of mobile robots and they will all trace their ancestry to those developed by James McLurkin while still a student at MIT.”

That was back in 2003, after McLurkin won the ninth $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness. He won for creating what were determined the world’s smallest autonomous robots. The next year TIME magazine listed him as one of the nation’s five leading robotics engineers.

Now he’s managing projects where clusters of bots can search indoor environments all at the command of complex formulas devised in McLurkin’s head. If McLurkin is successful in executing his programs, man may soon benefit from machines working in collective, and may find fierce competition on the dance floor.

Click here to check out the other Grio 100 history-makers in science.