Can we trust robots? Innovative technologies will radically change the skills of tomorrow. The challenge lies in keeping humans up to date.

Photo courtesy of Caltech
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By Bethan Ashmead Latham

Robots are everywhere. Two post-graduate students from the California Institute of Technology explained to our reporter Charlotte Crang how robots are already interacting with humans — sometimes in ways we may not even notice.

Claudia Kann and Maegan Tucker are interested in how robots can help people recover from serious injuries. Perhaps not quite the Doctor Robot you may be picturing (sorry!), but just as fascinating.

Maegan works on assistive rehabilitation technology and studies how different robotic techniques can enhance human mobility. At the moment, she’s working on a balance-detection device.

Claudia works on helping healthier patients walk using less energy with the help of an exoskeleton for ankles.

They also have a message for girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM): “Don’t give up. We need you!”

Charlotte Crang also speaks with guest expert Jeremy Wagstaff, who provides listeners with a somber take on how robots could disrupt the workforce if governments don’t ensure people are reskilled. 

Listen below!

Podcast Transcript

Nolwazi Mjwara

Welcome to The Kids Are Alright, the podcast the explores big, global issues from a fresh perspective.

I’m Nolwazi Mjwara. Originally from South Africa, I moved to Paris, France three years ago to pursue a master’s degree. I’m a news enthusiast and have always been interested in what young people think and are doing to address some of the things I read about in the news. Before we begin, here’s a message from my colleague Megha Thomas who helped me produce this podcast.

Megha Thomas: Hey there! Thanks for tuning in to today’s episode. The Kids Are Alright was produced by a team of students and aspiring journalists interested in learning more about some of the biggest issues facing the global community. From social media fame to the Venezuelan crisis to climate change, we’ve reached out to young people and experienced professionals alike in order to provide you with a different perspectives on hot topics.

We hope you enjoy it! Share your thoughts with us on Twitter @kidsalrightnews or on Instagram @kidsarealrightnews.

Megha Thomas

Nolwazi Mjwara: Robocop, iRobot, Westworld, The Terminator. Hollywood is obsessed with robot uprisings. But our idea of what a robot looks like and what a robot is capable of might be a bit skewed.

It’s 2018, and we’ve produced some pretty smart machines. Millions of people use digital assistants like Siri, Alexa or Cortana everyday to send texts, schedule meetings and answer our questions. We trust our smartphones.

So why can’t we trust robots? Maybe it’s due to exaggerated portrayals from Hollywood, or maybe it’s a primal fear of the unknown.

Our reporter on this episode is Charlotte Crang. She reached out to two PhD students who build, study and work with robots everyday.

Charlotte Crang

Charlotte Crang: Hi. I’m Charlotte Crang. I’m a Humanities graduate, but I’ve always been fascinated by new technologies and how they change our society. The thing I’ve been worrying about lately is robotics and artificial intelligence, and how young people need to adapt to thrive in this new world. I got in touch with two PhD students in California in the United States to see what they thought about it.

Claudia Kann: Hi. I’m Claudia Kann. I’m a first-year graduate student at Caltech working for Dr. Aaron Ames. Our lab works on bipedal motion, and specifically I’m working on creating an exoskeleton for ankles that will help people walk. 

Claudia Kann
Maegan Tucker

Maegan Tucker:  I’m Maegan Tucker, I also work for Dr. Aaron Ames at Caltech. I do assistive rehabilitation technologies. So right now we’re working on a balance-detection device for a cane, and we look at utilizing different robotic techniques to kind of amplify human mobility.

Charlotte Crang: Why did you decide to study robotics?

Claudia Kann: I kind of fell into it. When I was an undergrad, I was doing mechanical engineering, and one of the professors that I had a good relationship with knew that the Robotics Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center was looking for an intern on one of the projects, and so she set me up with that, and I worked with them on an upper-body rehabilitation device actually. And realized that I loved it.

Maegan Tucker: Yeah, I had a very similar experience where through research projects at school — so when you’re an undergrad in school you get involved in different research projects across campus — and I found that the ones that really resonated with me were the ones that were making a difference in people’s lives. And so that was, “How do we combine this field of robotics with people?”

Charlotte Crang: Ok, so projects that you’re doing now. Can you tell me a little more about them? 

Claudia Kann: I’m currently working on an ankle exoskeleton. If you look at current research, about 50 percent of the energy you use while walking actually comes from the ankles. And the way that we’re going to test this is by using a metabolic mask. And so pretty much you have a mask that will go over someone while they’re walking both with and without the exoskeleton. And based on the composition of their breath, you can actually tell how much energy they’re using.

So ideally with my exoskeleton, is you’ll have someone who is able to walk longer or farther with less energy. So you’re just as tired after, you know, two miles as a normal person would be after one because this is helping you walk.

Charlotte Crang: And so is that closer to the stage that the cane is at? Or not quite yet? 

Maegan Tucker: So the cane project came out of a class here at Caltech where we were looking at how can we use technology to help people with mobility challenges. So one of the problems with robotics, is it’s a very expensive field, so a lot of the technologies that we produce are never able to become commercialized because people just can’t afford to use them, and a lot of that comes in with insurance.

The thing that we were looking at in the class, is, ok, how do we make something that is both utilizing technology but affordable? And so what we ended up doing is just utilizing very simple technology to get the position of the cane and then using a vibration motor to vibrate the cane.

Charlotte Crang:  What you’re working on is more likely to be inspired by nature and other animals. I don’t know — like I know there are robots that are not inspired by nature, but is that less common? Do we have to get over this bio hurdle first, and then move into sort of crazier things?

Claudia Kann: So my main experience with that is when I was working at Johnson Space Center. I actually asked the question of, “Why is this robot humanoid?” Like I didn’t think it made sense. I felt like it would make sense if it had wheels or if there were kind of lots of different ways. And what it turns out is, especially for a robot functioning in a human-built environment, is everything is built for humans. And so it actually makes it easier if it’s shaped like a human because it’s going to be able to do all those tasks.

Maegan Tucker: Mmhmm. So wheels aren’t incredibly efficient because if you think about it in order to move, you constantly have to be spinning the motors as opposed to with running, you’re just contacting the ground, and then in this flight phase you’re actually very metabolically efficient.

So when we look at nature and we look at animals and we look at humans, why we do the things we do, everything has a purpose. And it really teaches us a lot about material properties and characteristics and motions and the most optimal way to do things.

The other aspect of this, which is really interesting, is the aspect of trust. So it is really important for robots and humans to have mutual trust. The reason we like to make them looking cute and looking relatable is that we want people to understand that they can trust robots. You know we program everything in robots. There’s nothing to be afraid of. They always have an objective and rules. They’re very simplistic things.

Charlotte Crang: And how do you feel about those horror stories. Are you afraid?

Maegan Tucker: Not at all.

Claudia Kann: Not in the slightest bit. So I think that the misconception is that machine learning and artificial intelligence means that your robot is just immediately able to do what a human mind is able to do. And at least in my understanding and in my experience, is you very much have to tell it what you want it to learn and how you want it to learn it. And so I just don’t think that it’s a realistic fear that robots are going to come and take over the world.

Charlotte: But does that also mean we’ll always have some kind of jobs teaching them or ensuring everything is still going to plan?

Maegan Tucker: Oh yeah. Robots are so needy, you know, they need constant maintenance, they need constant calibration. You have to, you know —

Charlotte Crang: Babies!

Claudia Kann: Like a baby

Maegan Tucker: They are babies! They need a lot of care, they need a lot attention. You know, we’re always going to have to maintain them to continue being able to work properly. And there will always be tasks that humans will forever be superior at. Robots are inherently dumb. Like they often fail. There are a lot of things that they really struggle with. You know if you look at the DARPA walking challenge, the final of that challenge is just videos of robots falling over because it’s really hard to get robots to do things that as humans we’re very good at.

Charlotte Charlotte: Do you have any advice for either girls in STEM — I don’t know if people are still on that subject — or just this generation going into this field?

Maegan Tucker: Don’t give up! We need you. Don’t get dissuaded.

Claudia Kann: Yeah, I think, you know, decide for yourself whether you want to be doing it or not. Don’t let, kind of, the ideas of other people get in the way of that. You know, do what you want to do.

Maegan Tucker: And we will welcome you with open arms because we need all of the women in this field that we can get!

Nolwazi Mjwara

Nolwazi Mjwara: So, robots might not be as developed or as human-like as the image the public carries in our imagination. But still, robots and the integration of artificial intelligence into our everyday lives continues to stir up uneasiness amongst many, which we’ve see in the reactions to driver-less cars or the humanoid robot Sophia who made her public debut in 2016.

Intrigued by this very real fear, we turned to Jeremy Wagstaff who is based in Singapore and works as Thomson Reuters’ Asia Technology Correspondent.

Charlotte: The fact that we allow, like, an Alexa in our kitchen, do you think that means that we all trust robots already or it’s still going take a little work for the industry to get people to trust them?

Charlotte Crang
Jeremy Wagstaff

Jeremy Wagstaff: Yeah, I wouldn’t use the word trust. I think we have, it’s a kind of pact with the devil. If we stop to think about it for any length of time, we wouldn’t, we probably wouldn’t tolerate it. We would turn these things off. I don’t call it trust. I think it’s just this sort of strange co-existence that we’ve created where in the same way that with artificial intelligence, any person in this field of machine learning and deep learning will, if they’re honest, will admit that it’s a black box. They don’t really understand why these things work. All they know is that they do work. 

 

Charlotte Crang: I wanted to see how this would affect the way we work.

Jeremy Wagstaff: I have a dystopian view of robots in the sense that every time people have said, “Don’t worry about robots because when they — they will just free us humans up to do more interesting work”, has never really been the case. They tend to free managers and C-level people – chief executives, the financial decision-makers — up to be able to cut back workforce levels. It is always the case that automation reduces headcount, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I think something like 25 percent or 20 percent of the American workforce, something like this, is, actually, their job, or part of their job, is driving something from A to B. It might be a truck or it might be just a forklift or something like that. And those jobs are — in the next five years — going to see a significant reduction. People will either have to be re-skilled, but this doesn’t tend to happen. When robots replace workers, people do not tend to be re-skilled. They tend to be “down-skilled,” I would say. And I haven’t seen the numbers for this, but I would guess that a lot of those people who are looking after those robots are not really, don’t consider themselves as having taken a step up. Often those jobs are not particularly pleasant, and sometimes they are quite dangerous. Looking after a robotic arm is not necessarily a pleasant or simple or even a danger-free task.

The better side of this, of course, is that if governments address this properly, it does mean that people are going to be freed up to do other things and that there will be a very lucky group of people who are able to make use of that in order to create a whole new welter of new jobs, new industries and new kinds of ways of making money, and that people will benefit from that.

Charlotte Crang: I suppose the bottom line is this: Robots can revolutionize how we live, they can help us learn better and heal better, but no revolution is without its dangers. And we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. But in the meantime, it seems like an amazing field to try out.

Nolwazi Mjwara: You’ve been listening to an episode of The Kids Are Alright. It was a production from Podium.me and News-Decoder. Tell us what you thought of this episode by tweeting us @kidsalrightnews.

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