Catching up with…John Rieffel

Publication Date

Growing up in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., John Rieffel had access to some of the world’s best cultural institutions.

It was one particular experience, though, which ignited a passion that ultimately steered him to a career in academia.

John Rieffel, associate professor of computer science and chair of the department

John Rieffel, associate professor of computer science and chair of the department, counts cycling among his hobbies.

“I became interested in robotics mostly because I read tons of sci-fi as a kid,” said Rieffel, professor of computer science and chair of the department. “But it was an exhibit on robots at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum featuring real-life robots from MIT and Carnegie Mellon that really got me hooked.”

Today, Rieffel is one of the College’s top experts on robotics: evolutionary robotics, soft robotics and tensegrity robotics. He can often be found in the CROCHET Lab (Collaborative Robotics and Computer-Human Empirical Testing) on the ground floor of Wold Atrium, sharing his expertise with students.

A popular tool in the interdisciplinary hub is a high-speed, high precision 3D motion capture system. Rieffel is excited for the potential of the state-of-the-art system for collaborative research in fields such as biomechanics, dynamics and controls, neuroscience, biology, computer science and robotics.

As a computer scientist, Rieffel has a strong research interest in artificial intelligence.

“Artificial intelligence is just like any other technology tool: the power depends upon who is using it,” he said. “I think not enough attention has been paid to the systematic biases and actual harms to underrepresented groups that are at the root of systems like ChatGPT.” He recommends Netflix’s critically acclaimed documentary, “Coded Bias,” for a better understanding of the issues related to the biases and inequities that have become embedded in algorithms and other technology.

Rieffel’s pursuits have not all been serious. As a youngster, he also dabbled in unicycling and juggling. When he was a senior in high school, he auditioned for a spot in Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus’s Clown College. He won a spot, deferring his admission to Swarthmore College for a year. He earned a bachelor of funny arts degree and spent some time performing on the road with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, at the time the largest three-ring tented circus in the country.

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The travel was exhausting and the pay low, so, after a few months, he bailed on the circus life and landed at Swarthmore, earning degrees in computer science and engineering. He received his Ph.D. from Brandeis University. He joined Union in 2009.

Outside of Union, Rieffel enjoys cycling, beekeeping, and sourdough bread and pizza baking.

He lives on a small farm in Burnt Hills, with his wife, Emily, an acupuncturist, and their two children, Simon and Susannah.

FIRST APP YOU LOOK AT IN THE MORNING: The first thing I do is fire up my Rancilio Silvia espresso machine. I need a strong cup of coffee before I look at any apps.

GO-TO BREAKFAST: Icelandic yoghurt, fruit from my farm and honey from my hives. I currently have five beehives, and can harvest 5-10 gallons of honey a year. I often sell it to members of the Union community, and claim it tastes better if you imagine me getting stung with every bite.

WHAT’S THE LAST GREAT BOOK YOU READ? I enjoyed M.T. Anderson's “Feed.” Professors Kate Feller, Jen Mitchell and I are teaching it as part of our Cyborgs class. It has been fun to teach this course to our students because it does a good job of presenting a dystopian future where we are all connected to the internet "feed" with devices implanted in our brains. The book was written in 2005, and yet was incredibly prescient about many things. Sometimes I worry the founders of Twitter took a bit too much inspiration from the book.

BEST ADVICE YOU EVER RECEIVED: A friend once suggested I should audition for Ringling Brothers Clown College. I did apply - and was accepted.

FAVORITE PLACE TO VISIT: My second hometown, Paris, France. I lived there as a kid and fell in love with the city. In the past 10 years it has transformed into a “15-minute city” with amazing cycling and walking infrastructure. I spent a week there this summer just biking around the city and eating amazing food. It should really inspire other cities (even Schenectady) to make their own changes. In a pinch, Montreal is a suitable substitute.

WHAT ARE YOU WATCHING RIGHT NOW? I've been working my way through “Yellowjackets,” a psychological drama on Showtime about a high school girls’ soccer team who survive a plane crash in the remote wilderness. Some of them turn to cannibalism to stay alive. It's a bit of a guilty visceral pleasure.

ONE SKILL YOU WISH YOU HAD: A lick of musical talent. I have been told I sing so far off key that I harmonize. Fortunately, both of my children have amazing musical talent in guitar and clarinet.

THREE DINNER PARTY GUESTS (living or deceased): As long as Anthony Bourdain was willing to cook, I would love to have dinner with Bourdain, the singer-songwriter Jason Molina (of Magnolia Electric Co) and Ada Lovelace (the first woman to write a computer program).

FIRST CONCERT: I wish I could say it was Fugazi at Fort Reno Park in Washington, D.C. In the late 1980s and early 1990s this was the coolest music scene around. But I think it was actually The Beach Boys on the National Mall on the 4th of July in the early 1980s.

LITTLE KNOWN FACT ABOUT YOU: I ran away from the circus to go to college. My contract with the Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers ran through the end of the calendar year, so a bunch of friends picked me up in a minivan in the middle of the night to squirrel me off to orientation week.