Interview with a roboticist

Part of my ongoing interest in writing about technology and work is inspired by the feeling that there really is a lot of cool stuff going on in the world–it’s not all just about my worry that we might find ourselves automated out of jobs, without a plan to replace income from work.

After the announcement of our twitter chat on #robotwork, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to talk to a roboticist–and of course, I said yes. I was hoping to have this interview posted before the chat, but due to a schedule mishap of my own making, that wasn’t possible. But I’m still very excited to have conducted our very first (email) interview with someone who’s working to make the world a better place, through robots.

Meet M. Bernadine Dias, Associate Research Professor in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

HtU: What was it that got you into this line of work?

Dias: I started in Physics because I was always interested in understanding how the world worked and using this knowledge to invent tools that serve humankind.  In university, I was introduced to Computer Science and was intrigued by the numerous ways in which computers can impact the world.  Robotics to me was the perfect marriage of Physics and Computer Science! So after University, and a double major in Physics and Computer Science, I went into grad school in Robotics.  However, I was born and raised in Sri Lanka, in a lower-middle-class family of six kids and one income, so people and community have always been very important to me. My undergraduate degree was also in the Liberal Arts.  So even though I double majored in Physics and Computer Science, I also minored in Women’s Studies, and took courses in Philosophy, Sculpture, Economics, and much more. So my vision was always to use technology to help preserve communities and their cultures while empowering each community to realize their vision of progress.  That is how and why I started my research group TechBridgeWorld after I completed my Ph.D. in robotics.

HtU: What is the “problem” that your work is trying to solve?

Dias: In general, my work aims to empower technologically under-served communities with technology tools that cater to their needs and help them to overcome their challenges and move towards their vision of progress.  I therefore primarily work with people in developing communities and people with disabilities.  So we build tools such as low-cost devices to help blind children to learn to write braille using the slate and stylus method which is used in the developing world. You can see an article I wrote for Footnote.

Other relevant articles you may find interesting are:

Information & Communication Technologies for Development

ICT4D2.0: The Next Phase of Applying ICT for International Development

HtU: What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?

Dias: That’s tough.  I work on a lot of cool things 🙂 I guess I’ll pick my newest project – which is titled assistive robots for blind travelers.  We are exploring how different types of robots can effectively interact with and assist blind people in the context of future urban travel. This is a new project funded by NSF so we don’t have a lot of results yet, but you can follow our work on our website.

HtU: Are there places—conferences, conventions, online spaces, etc.—where roboticists talk about the future of work & what role they/you play in creating it?

Dias: Yes – this is an integral topic that many roboticists discuss both formally and informally – mostly under the banner of the ethics of robotics.  Here are some resources:

Robot Ethics (MIT edition)

Robot Futures

Robot Ethics (IEEE edition)

Center for Law & Society–Robotics (Stanford)

Ethics & Emerging Sciences Group (CalPoly)

Ethics & Robotics (CMU)

HtU: What are some jobs that might be created in the future, using tech that you are working on now?

Dias: I think the technology we are collectively building will lead to a lot more (primarily “technician” and service category) jobs where the job will entail things like calibrating robots (you’ll already see some of this in the medical industry with the higher end technology being used for things like imaging and surgery), overseeing teams of robots (this could be in security, agriculture, construction, etc.), deciding the rules and regulations for technology and robots (law and philosophy), working with robots to accomplish complex tasks (surgeons are already doing this with complex surgeries), designing, fabricating, programming, servicing, marketing, and distributing robots, and much more 🙂

HtU: What are some of the ethical questions that are raised in your work, that civilians may not think about?

Dias: Some of the questions I wrestle with are how can we use technology to empower the disempowered? Or how can technology make society more inclusive? Or how can technology enable people with disabilities to lead more independent lives and increase their safety? Or what are the cultural implications of introducing a technology into a community and who should be a part of the decision of whether or not to introduce that technology and how can these decision makers be empowered to make informed choices?  We also think about the environmental consequences of the technology we build and the tradeoffs we have to make between environmental, societal, cultural, economical, and practical considerations.

HtU: What’s the one thing that you wish people who don’t work with automated technology knew about robots?

Dias: 🙂 Hmmm…It’s tough to pick one thing.  I guess I wish mostly that they knew real robots are not necessarily what you see in the movies (especially the blockbuster movies). We have been seeing more of a shift with the general public view of robots though.  We used to get visitors who always expected to see robots that looked like the Terminator. Now we get a wider variety of expectations and my son and his classmates assembled their first robot at the age of 2 with their daycare educators ((using a kit they bought from Amazon). These kids at the age of 3 now will tell you that robots come in many forms with wheels and legs and wings etc. We also had a blind teacher in a small school for blind childrern in India ask us for a robot that could help her carry her things around 🙂  So perceptions are certainly changing! Robots, just like any other technology or machine or fashion trend are really what we make of them.  So we just have to make sure we include all the relevant voices in the discussions of what we should do with robots and make the best informed and inclusive decisions we can so that humans can be safer, have more flexibility in work location, spend their time doing more interesting things, and accomplish previously impossible things using the technology we build. Roboticists always talk about robots that tackle the 3 D’s: Dull, Dirty, and Dangerous tasks.

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