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Scholars of Note: Electrical Engineering

Electrical EngineeringMaking Things SmartCharles L. Isbell Jr.Title: Assistant Professor, Intelligent Systems Group, College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta
Education: Ph.D., Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; B.S., Computer Science,
Georgia Institute of Technology
Age: 35 In science fiction movies, the plots showcasing the potential of artificial intelligence typically invoke doomsday scenarios where intelligent machines band together and subdue the human population to take control of the Earth. “The Matrix” and “The Terminator” films represent the most popular of this sci-fi subgenre.
In the computer science research pursued by Dr. Charles L. Isbell Jr., machines and software tools endowed with artificial intelligence are meant to aid humans rather than menace them. An assistant professor in the Intelligent Systems Group in the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, Isbell is one of the nation’s leading young scientists working in artificial intelligence research.
His research has focused on developing software tools and machines that are capable of learning from their environment and behaving in a manner that reflects their learning. “I want to build something that changes over time like people do,” Isbell says. 
One of the best-known projects attributed to Isbell is a programmed software robot that thrives in a computer chat room and learns from its interaction with chat-room participants. Known as the “Cobot,” the autonomous software agent co-created by Isbell lives in LambdaMOO, an online community popular among computer science buffs and researchers.
The goal of Cobot “is to interact with other members of the community and to become a real part of his social fabric,” according to the Cobot Web site.
Isbell explains that Cobot achieves its goal by learning from statistical models it creates after recording the interactions of LambdaMOO chat-room visitors. This learning process allows Cobot to have dialogues with LambdaMOO users who initiate communication with it.
In the fall of 2002, Isbell, a native of the Atlanta area, joined the Georgia Tech faculty to establish himself as a research and teaching professor. The move to Georgia Tech, which happens to be where he earned his undergraduate degree, came after spending four years doing postdoctoral research at AT&T Labs in New Jersey. In 1998, Isbell completed his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science after having been a student in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At AT&T Labs, the research organization which has long been the research arm of AT&T, Isbell had considerable time to nurture his research in machine learning. He and a fellow researcher created Cobot in 1999 while at AT&T. “It gave me an opportunity to do research before returning to academia,” Isbell says of the experience.
Getting established in a campus environment where one has to balance teaching duties and research represents a tough task for any young scientist. For Isbell, he has continued to work on old projects, as well as on longtime interests in music, Black history and mentorship. A hip-hop music enthusiast, Isbell has written hip-hop music reviews, and has maintained Web sites on hip hop, as well as Black history. Isbell also works with Georgia Tech students to improve upon the school’s recruitment of Atlanta-area African American high-school students.
The child of a social worker-mother and restaurant owner-father, Isbell enjoyed encouragement and support to follow ideas that excited and motivated him. A voracious reader as a youngster, Isbell connected deeply with themes in science fiction literature that tied scientific experimentation to philosophical issues. Questions, such as “Can humanlike consciousness be created in a machine or computer?” or “Can a machine be endowed with humanlike emotions?” engaged and intrigued Isbell, and helped put him on a course to learn computer science.
Professors and fellow students who encountered Isbell found him to have considerable focus and determination. Says Dr. Kurt Eiselt, the director of undergraduate education in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech:
 “Charles was a student of mine more than 14 years ago. He struck me then as being not only very smart but also more focused and more motivated than his peers. He was very sure about the path he was taking. More than once he told me ‘I’m going to get my Ph.D., and then I’m coming back to be a professor at Georgia Tech.’ ” — By Ronald Roach

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