Empowerment Through Computing

Juan Gilbert wanted to be like the heroes in the movies he watched as a kid: the person everyone looked to for help and who would valiantly save the day. But these superheroes didn’t use their physical might to fight danger. The heroes in Gilbert’s favorite sci-fi movies wore lab coats.

“I’ve always wanted to help other people and I saw science as empowering,” says Gilbert.

As a computer science graduate student in Ohio, he faced his first feat. “In my classes, there were large cultural groups that had cohorts and they worked together,” Gilbert says. But, in the late 1990s, he was the only African-American in his class and never saw anyone like him in the field. Feeling isolated, he made a decision that would impact his role as a mentor and pioneer in human-centered computing.

“This motivated me to not only invent things that could shape and change society but to mentor and help bring other people along.” Because, he says, only through inclusion and diversity can social problems wholly and truly be solved.

Thanks to the Andrew Banks Family Preeminence Endowment, Gilbert brought his handpicked team of 21 faculty, doctoral and postdoc students to the University of Florida in July from Clemson University to continue their work in human-centered computing.

Gilbert, now chair of the Department of Computer & Information Science & Engineering at the College of Engineering, is developing Prime III, software that enables voters with disabilities to cast a ballot. The software has been used in elections in New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Oregon. Recently, Gilbert met with Florida officials who expressed an interest in the software.

And, to ensure the software can be widely used, Gilbert gives Prime III away for free. All the states need are computers or mobile devices, as the program runs on any platform.

Gilbert’s lab is also developing a brain-computer interface that can help a wounded warrior operate a robot with brain activity or measure distraction while texting and driving.

He was one of the first hires under UF’s Preeminence Plan. Gilbert, The Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor and department chair, says the most important thing he teaches students is this process: Identify a problem, design a solution, build a solution, evaluate its effectiveness and implement the solution.

“I tell my students all the time, when we do a good job we know it because we’re convincing people that they could’ve done it; because it looks that easy.”

University of Florida