When Erin Bradner ’01 was first introduced to human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence as an undergrad at UC San Diego, she was intrigued by the concept of neural networks. “Why wouldn’t we mimic the circuitry of the human mind to make software smarter?” This intrigue followed her into the workforce and ultimately led her to UCI, where she earned her M.S. and Ph.D. in Information & Computer Science (ICS). Now, as director of robotics at Autodesk, where she co-founded the Generative Design initiative, she is constantly exploring how technology can “amplify human creativity.” Here, she talks about everything from digital design tools and robots in the workplace to her need to “reverse-engineer” her induction into the ICS Hall of Fame.
What led you to attend UCI for your Ph.D.?
After graduating with my B.S. in cognitive science at UCSD, I worked for a small software company that introduced pioneering user interfaces that we now take for granted, including non-contiguous text selection, multiple undos, and voice and text annotations. It was a dream job for a budding software interaction designer and user researcher, but I had a nagging urge to go back to school. I wanted to find a program with an emphasis on human-centered software design and HCI. My thinking was that because human computational systems (neurons, etc.) and human input devices (eyes and ears, etc.) were likely to evolve far slower than non-human hardware and software, my best educational investment would be a strong foundation in HCI. Human cognition, sensation, perception and even social behavior are complex yet largely stable. Computing paradigms are malleable. I chose UCI’s information and computer science program so I could explore principles of good design from a technical and human perspective.
Your LinkedIn profile says you “amplify human creativity.” What first sparked your interest in using technology for creativity?
When I was straining to capture the essence of what I do for my LinkedIn profile, it occurred to me that amplifying human creativity through technology is at the root of all my work. I’ve long been interested in how technology enables creativity — not exclusively artistic expression, but the exploration of ideas to produce new and unexpected creations in any profession. At Autodesk, which makes architectural design, engineering and entertainment software, I’ve worked with hundreds of architects, engineers and animators. These professionals each approach their work with a unique mix of experience, intuition and formal training, yet the vast majority of them favor software design tools that support exploration. They want tools that let them quickly iterate on traditional ideas as well as a few harebrained suggestions and maybe even create a mashup of both. I find it deeply satisfying knowing that software tools I helped develop have allowed people to design with more creative freedom and passion. The best digital design tools — from CAD tools to photo editors to word processors — amplify creativity when they let us play around with a vastly wider range of design alternatives.
What new technologies are you exploring and excited about as director of Autodesk’s Robotics Lab?
I manage an industrial research lab — everything we do is exploratory! Today, researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab are in our lab using generative design algorithms to make an experimental space lander; the researchers on my team are using AI to teach a robot how to assemble toy blocks and timber framing for buildings; and I’m researching the technical drivers that will shape the future of robotics in construction. I’m excited about it all. I particularly like the challenge of extrapolating how machine learning and 3D modeling will impact robotics in the near future. Spoiler alert: robot armies won’t invade factories, homes and construction sites in droves to displace human workers! However, a new class of adaptable, responsive robots will be turning up at worksites across industries to help out with a range of tedious jobs.
How has your UCI education helped you throughout your career?
This may sound cliché but trust me, it has helped me make educated guesses throughout my career. My UCI education gave me a solid technical background in software programming techniques and in research methods, which has helped me choose the right tool for the task. As a technical manager, for example, I know when to focus on system architecture or performance optimization or when to tweak our process. As a research manager, I know what kind of answers I can expect to get out of running a structured experiment versus collecting qualitative field observations or conducting a literature review. My ICS degree exposed me to multiple ways of thinking about technology, so I also understand how to tap people from different disciplines for the types of insights they’re best equipped to provide. Perhaps it all started with my Ph.D. committee. I learned quickly which member of my committee to turn to for help with study design, whom to turn to for technical advice, and who would compassionately rip my writing to shreds!
Can you share any memorable UCI moments or tell us about an influential professor?
I have a lot of great memories from UCI. My favorites are the gifts that keep on giving. Thanks to a chance encounter on Ring Road, I took a spontaneous girl-bonding road trip that led to a lifelong friendship. Thanks to a love of ethnography that I learned through ICS, I co-authored a research paper that, 20 years later, won an award for “Lasting Impact” in the field and is being assigned to students as mandatory reading. Thanks to the compassionate yet demanding faculty in ICS, I humbly believe I’ve matured into a compassionate yet demanding research manager and leader. I will always remember a compliment given to me by one of the least expressive professors on my Ph.D. committee: after completing a grueling two-day qualifying exam, I was informed by this professor that I passed the qualifiers “with flying colors.” I was proud of myself and I took that compliment to mean that he was proud of me too. I had that same feeling last month when my ICS Ph.D. adviser Gloria Mark came to the ICS Hall of Fame ceremony and simply said, “I’m here because of you. ”
Can you talk about your work with the non-profit Build Change?
I serve on the board of directors, applying my expertise in technology design and 3D modeling for architecture. Build Change designs disaster-resistant houses and schools in emerging nations, training homeowners and government officials to build them. Nearly a quarter of a million people are in safer homes or schools thanks to their work. I studied technology adoption at UCI, and it’s clear to me that disaster-resistant building practices will be adopted only when the right technology is locally available, when it’s intuitive to implement, and when it’s culturally accepted. It’s a challenging design problem that I feel very passionate about.
What was your reaction to learning you were being inducted into the ICS Hall of Fame?
Surprise and disbelief! I mentally cycled through what conceivable evidence the selection committee could have used… the Lasting Impact award, my role as director of robotics at Autodesk, the patents in advanced design that I’ve co-authored, or keynote speeches I’ve had the honor of giving. Then I called my lifelong UCI friend (the one from Ring Road) and her husband, another UCI alumnus, and they both told me to stop trying to reverse engineer the logic of the award and just celebrate!
Any words of advice for ICS students?
Trust your instincts, whether you choose to use your UCI education broadly through an interdisciplinary program or more narrowly with a highly focused specialization. You do you!
— Shani Murray