Tim Chung's (MS '02, PhD '07) growth as a robotics enthusiast and innovator, from his early days working with soccer-playing robots to his revitalization of robotics at Microsoft, is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary learning and curiosity. Fueled by a Caltech background without departmental boundaries, Chung's foray into the field of robotics has furthered the frontier both above and below, from controlling robot swarms in intricate urban situations to improving search and rescue operations in underground locations.
ENGenuity spoke with Chung to learn more about his Caltech influences and education, his career with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and his current role leading a groundbreaking initiative within Microsoft to redefine the role of robotics in our lives.
ENGenuity: How would you describe what you're doing now and your professional contributions?
Tim Chung: I'm currently the General Manager of Robotics and Autonomy at Microsoft, within the Strategic Missions and Technologies Division. This is where Microsoft develops and launches new business categories for up-and-coming innovations. Right now, AI is the name of the game, but right alongside, I view robotics as another opportunity to have that transformative impact. We're rebooting and revitalizing robotics at Microsoft, and that's what they brought me on. I landed here about a year and a half ago, and in many ways, I'm employee number one of a startup within a big corporation seeking to understand what it means to have high-impact robotics out in the wild.
Before Microsoft, I had the humbling privilege to be at DARPA, where I served as a program manager. I joined in 2016, and my early area of interest was focused on getting teams of robots to go and conduct operations in complex scenarios like urban operations. The challenge was how to deploy 100-200 or more air and ground robots to an urban environment for disaster response or a firefighting scenario without needing every soldier or firefighter running around looking down at joysticks. We developed solutions that allowed for a swarm commander, nominally only one or two people, to manage those 100-200 robots. That was a program we called OFFSET.
I also led another program called the DARPA Subterranean Challenge. This focused on a similar problem of getting robots to operate in complex environments. In this case, the challenge was how to deploy robots to a wide range of underground spaces like human made tunnels, such as mines, urban underground (including parking garages, sewers, and drains), and naturally occurring caves to perform search and rescue missions with speed and accuracy. This program allowed for international innovation to occur, which was fun to see. I had the opportunity to see JPL and Caltech participate as part of the team, so it was great to see technology from my old stomping grounds come to the fore. This international competition showcased that technology is changing rapidly and it's happening all around the world, which is a great sign for robotics.
ENGenuity: What inspired you to go into robotics?
Chung: When I began my undergraduate education at Cornell University, I was excited to be an aerospace engineer. For one reason or another, my experience around fluid dynamics didn't capture my passion or imagination at the time, despite my best efforts. However, I had a controls professor, and everything seemed to come together in the context of robotics and controls. This experience taught me that having the right mentor, the right professor, and the right guide as far as your learning journey is concerned helps shape you. I worked on RoboCup, which involves teams of soccer-playing robots, and this experience deepened my interest in robotics. Then, when I arrived at Caltech for grad school for robotics, I was able to rediscover my interest in fluid dynamics through the courses I took towards the beginning of my program. I remember thinking to myself that if I had the kind of a positive experience that I did at Caltech, I may have continued down the aerospace and rocket science path as an undergraduate, though it's made me even more grateful for the experience and decision to pursue robotics.
ENGenuity: What class or professor(s) at Caltech made a significant impact on you?
Chung: I've benefited from numerous inspiring mentors. On the academic side, Richard Murray [Thomas E. and Doris Everhart Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems and Bioengineering], was not only one of my co-advisors but he also taught several of my classes. From the perspective of how to inspire others, I think Richard helped on that front. Also, I'm grateful for my advisor Joel Burdick [Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering] for a variety of reasons. One reason was the freedom that he gave me, especially early in my grad school career, to go and just learn and discover. If I wanted to go and study neuroscience, he encouraged me to go and look at neuroscience. If I wanted to learn more about biology, I could setup research jam sessions with a bio grad student. That's the kind of early-stage formative process that is so critical for being able to drive innovation. I have found that the pattern of success involved being given that room to grow, learn, and explore without being driven to deliver something like a paper, dissertation, or a product.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech education influenced you? What do you think makes Caltech unique?
Chung: Caltech is such a tight knit community; I think that is one of the key hallmarks of my Caltech experience. It didn't ever seem like there were departmental boundaries for me as a grad student, whether it was because we played ultimate frisbee together, or because we took classes together, or because we were working on similar projects. That influenced me dramatically in how I thought about running my own programs at DARPA. The intersection of disciplines and backgrounds and fields is where the magic happens. Now, in my corporate career, I've seen that it's not just about getting one miracle to work, which is a feat in and of itself, but about getting four or five miracles to work in terms of integrating different technologies and use cases. My Caltech education showed that it's not just about pushing a narrow field of expertise, but quite frankly, pushing for excellence in many fields of expertise. You do that through working and collaborating and learning vicariously through others, but also the breadth and depth of the work that we did. I feel like Caltech set me up incredibly well to succeed in this regard.
ENGenuity: Is there a project you are most proud of throughout your career?
Chung: As a junior faculty member at the Naval Postgraduate School still working my way towards tenure, a mentor of mine, who was a retired Navy captain, asked about my experience working with soccer playing robots in RoboCup. This kicked off a collaboration and research thread involving large-scale teams of robots to protect against a large-scale team of opposing robots. The notion of the complexity of teams vs teams or swarms vs swarms is a fascinating research problem. Can we go and build a fleet of aerial drones, the fixed-wing kind, and can we get 50 of those drones not only functional but aloft? Can we operate them with a single operator and have them do collaborative autonomous behaviors in the sky? And can you do that all before the batteries run out? It hadn't been done before. With a scrappy enough team, a mission-focused application in mind, the room to breathe and go off and do this far-out thing, an army of summer interns, and some grad students, we were able to demonstrate in 2015 a world record of 50 fixed-wing aircrafts autonomously collaborating with a single human operator flying over the skies of central California. There were a lot of naysayers, even DARPA was saying it probably couldn't be done as quickly as I thought it could be done. Despite those naysayers, the experience of going through Caltech gave me the confidence not only in my assessment of the technology but also in my ability to execute alongside my team members.
ENGenuity: What advice would you give to the next generation of Caltech students?
Chung: Take every opportunity to learn and meet new people. Learn new fields, learn from new experiences, find a mentor who you are aligned with and latch on to them. Humility is another major piece of advice. In my Caltech experience, I can point to some classes that were exceedingly humbling, but taking all of that in stride and remaining humble is helpful. Being at ease with not being the brightest person in the room—and even yearning for it—is powerful and enabling.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Chung: I find joy and satisfaction in seeing how team members and direct reports succeed. Those days are positive for me. Also, I love the fact that my kids, who are nine and six, are equally passionate about learning and STEM areas of research. I find it rewarding to consistently be a source of inspiration; it's a good litmus test of how inspiring my work can be.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story?
Chung: There is a short Pixar cartoon called Far From the Tree that played before the movie Encanto. It's about a parent raccoon and a baby raccoon that go out to the beach. The parent raccoon is very protective of the baby raccoon, and the baby raccoon just wants to go play in the sand, hop around, frolic, etc. The parent raccoon had such a bad experience as a child and was passing on that overprotectiveness in a not so instructive way to its child. Then the short fast forwards, the child is all grown up and realizes it is doing the same scolding behavior, catches it, and has a transformation of being more open, flexible, positive, and reinforcing. I don't know if it's simply a story about generations and parents or if it's more symbolic of the way we want to take what we see, see what we learn, and leave the planet better off than when we arrived. Even if you have these pre-conceived notions and learn to do things a certain way, you can still learn to be open with how you interact with the world and the people around you.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Chung: Hawaii. My kids have such positive memories of Hawaii. It's one of those places where you can really get away. We've done that twice now with both kids. The sense of freedom is great there.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Chung: I think we're on the verge of incredible technological breakthroughs. Each of these technological breakthroughs have incredible promise to uplift the world and transform how we live and think and eat. Especially with things like AI or robotics, there are plenty of science fiction movies that articulate what could go wrong. I think it boils down to technical leadership and the will to lead with science and technology being well grounded and firmly implanted in any decisions. What keeps me up is that many of our decisions are not always made that way, even among technologists. The ethics and policy implications of technology are things to stay cognizant of whether you're in academia, industry, or government. Having spanned all three, I can see that there are many different lenses by which to do that. Hopefully we have both sound reinforcement of those values as well as technical leadership in the decision maker spaces that can help navigate that.
ENGenuity: What gets you up in the morning?
Chung: What gets me up in the morning is that maybe I can contribute to uplifting the planet and being able to develop technologies that will benefit and save lives. That was one of the major things for me while working in the Defense Department for much of my professional career. Being able to impact those who are contributing to our well-being is something I'm passionate about. Helping to shape the future of technology and robotics responsibly, safely, and equitably is why I love doing what I do.