Faculty Exchange Program
CMU Portugal Program Bridging Academia And Industry
Hosted by David Garlan, professor at CMU’s Institute of Software Research, School of Computer Science, the Portuguese researcher “wanted to understand what was different and excellent at CMU in terms of teaching, research and the relationship with companies and society at large. And this experience was fabulous because we are talking about a world-class university that teaches people how to become project managers and how to develop quality software products,” Pedro Furtado states.
According to the researcher, “professor David Garlan and his colleagues were always making sure that I had the best possible experience while at CMU”, and this was “a great opportunity to learn the best practices in both teaching and research, and to understand not only the mechanics of a top research group and university, but also the key factors necessary to achieve such success.”
“Learning about contents and methods of courses; Learning about research activities in the Institute of Software Research; Researching; Preparing common projects, collaborations and other activities; and Attending lectures and Seminars,” were the goals established by Pedro Furtado, and “all those objectives were fulfilled.”
CMU: A World-class University
“The training I received at CMU was very important for me and for my organization,” he reveals. In particular, “I was fortunate enough to be able to attend different courses, which was not only a learning experience, but has given me an understanding of how the courses are organized,” the faculty member states. “My goal in Portugal will be to incorporate some of the best practices that I found interesting at CMU. The experience I had can be useful to my research group, to my University and to Portugal’s scientific infrastructure,” he adds.
Most of all, learning about the University’s relationship with society and industry was key, especially because Pedro Furtado is working on projects which have an impact on society. “Doing research in Portugal is difficult because funding is scarce; however, we have various industry-related activities because we supervise several projects in industry. Oftentimes our students work on those projects as part of their master and doctoral studies, and we supervise them, and this link is very important,” he says.
Making the Visually Impaired More Autonomous
Imagine a mobile app that guides the visually impaired inside buildings such as malls, allowing them to go to stores of their choice. Pedro Furtado is doing just that. The idea with the app – called SmartGuia and developed by Karen Duarte, a master’s degree student advised by the faculty member – is to allow blind people to become more autonomous. The app won third place at the Fraunhofer Portugal Challenge.
SmartGuia is a sort of shopping assistant for the visually impaired. For that, the users just need to use their natural language and talk to the phone, asking for what they are looking. “This project came to be exactly because we wanted to have a link to society and a very important societal challenge is helping people with special needs.”
Pedro Furtado is developing assistive technologies, together with José Cecílio, a post-doc researcher who also did his Ph.D. under the supervision of Pedro. This activity has led the team to work with ACAPO – Associação dos Cegos e Amblíopes de Portugal (Portuguese association for the visually impaired). “In this case, we got together with a group of blind people and we asked them what their priorities were, what we could do for them and their answer was clear: they wanted to be autonomous,” the researcher explains.
How Does Smartguia Work?
SmartGuia should be used in a public building, such as a mall. Using their smartphone, the blind users can hit a soft button after which the system asks them where they want to go. Then the device provides the proper directions. “If, for some reason, the users need instructions at any moment, they just have to press the button again and ask for it,” he explains.
“An interesting thing that we understood is that a visually impaired person needs to be autonomous and not having to rely on someone. For instance, we tried to understand if it was important for them to have a way of knowing there was an obstacle ahead and they said ‘no’. So we tailored everything to allow the user to be autonomous, but at the same time providing help if needed,” Pedro Furtado adds.
The platform is currently in Portuguese because the team is working with ACAPO, but the system has a voice synthesizer and a speech recognizer that makes it possible to translate everything automatically. At this moment, the system is designed to work indoors, but according to the researcher it is being expanded to work outside as well, to have a visual interface alternative and to serve the public in general.
Looking to the Future
With a particular focus on helping society and bridging academia and industry together Pedro Furtado wants to succeed in and expand assistive technologies. He is also currently involved in a project called SmartAlzheimer designed for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “The goal is to help them get to certain places once they start to forget.” According to the researcher, “the CMU Portugal Program is a possible source of interesting projects and funding, and so some of the activities during my stay were related to setting up a project in the future. We hope to submit this as a CMU Portugal project. This can only become a product if we have the right resources,” the researcher states.
Proof of an ongoing concern with society is yet another project that Pedro Furtado is working on, this time with diabetes patients. The tool developed provides an interactive multimedia learning experience for the patients because they have to know how to eat properly and they have to be able to do Carbohydrate Counting, as it is essential to control blood sugar prior to taking insulin. “So what we did was develop a game which shows a plate and different types of food that you can drag to the plate. Then, the device gives you the carb equivalence or you try to guess and see if you got it right,” Pedro Furtado clarifies.
The Faculty Exchange Program is offered by the Carnegie Mellon Portugal Program and it allows academics from Portuguese universities to spend at least one term working in research and education at Carnegie Mellon, experiencing the culture of a top university in the United States. Carnegie Mellon professors are also given the opportunity to spend time in Portugal to engage in teaching and research activities with local higher education institutions and research labs.