"Science Nonfiction: Mapping a New Market for Robotics Technology" in Penn Engineering News

For Jonas Cleveland, it all started with Short Circuit.

At the age of 28, Cleveland (ROBO’14) works at the leading edge of robotics technology. He collaborates with some of the field's most well-known names and has cofounded an exciting new tech company that could revolutionize the process of automated navigation. However, as lofty as the circles in which he travels are today, the origins of his passion trace back to a slightly less academic source: the 1986 cult classic starring Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, and, of course, a robot. "I saw Short Circuit as a kid," says Cleveland, "and when I saw the robot Johnny Five come to life, I knew at that moment I wanted to be involved in robotics."

Upon his graduation from Union County Magnet School, a highly competitive high school focused on STEM fields, the Plainfield, New Jersey native attended Carnegie Mellon University for his undergraduate work because "it’s a great place to go if you want to do robotics." However, as he gained extensive technical expertise in robotics during his time at CMU, Cleveland also started to consider a second, percolating interest: entrepreneurship.

After briefly working as a researcher at Carnegie Mellon, Cleveland selected Penn for his graduate studies, a carefully measured move with an eye not only on the Robotics program's technical strength in robot perception, but also on the practical nature of the curriculum. "The program [at Penn] just does an incredible job of preparing people for industry," he says. “I saw the coursework here when I came to visit friends. They weren’t only doing problem sets or papers, they were actually building things. That appealed to me."

Cleveland quickly made his mark in Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory, developing technology related to computer perception and artificial intelligence. "He has the mentality of a scientist," says Kostas Daniilidis, Associate Dean for Doctoral Education and Director for Online Education at Penn Engineering. "He always wanted to understand why something works. What differentiates him from other students was that he is very independent in formulating research questions. He really generated his own ideas and pushed through them during his time here."