How robotics is shaping industries – and why the narrative around robotics needs to change

Interview with Professor Darwin Caldwell - Italian Institute of Technology

How robotics is shaping industries – and why the narrative around robotics needs to change

Professor Darwin Caldwell

Professor Caldwell is a member of the jury for Epson’s Win-A-Robot contest. He is a noted international researcher and academic who has published more than 500 papers on robotics. He is currently Deputy Director of the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa, Italy.

1. What is it about robotics/automation that really fascinates you? What drew you to this sector?

I’ve always been interested in science and tech right from when I was very young. At university, I studied what was probably one of the only robotics courses that existed at that time. Some people do mechanical engineering or computer science and drift into robotics as a topic they like in those areas. But I went deliberately into robotics. I believed that robotics and automation would change human lives – the way we do things, the way we live.

2. Given you have experience in both the UK and Italian markets, are there noticeable differences between markets in terms of approach

When I first started in robotics and people would ask about jobs in that field, there were only one or two jobs you could get in robotics every year. People might study robotics and end up doing something else like computer science. It was extremely hard to get a robotics job, almost impossible. Now there is exponential growth, with dozens of jobs advertised across Europe every day and the opportunities are incredible.

Italy has an exceptionally high number of SMEs. It’s the second largest manufacturing country in Europe, but we don’t often know these companies exist since they aren’t household names. It’s incredible to see that SMEs are in fact often quicker to make the decision to incorporate robotics than larger firms. Access to financing can be a struggle for them, but they can be much more flexible in their approach.

3. Has there also been an exponential growth from student interest?

The growth in the number of lecturing posts has changed even faster than the number of robotics jobs. Universities have realised that they need to hire people to educate those who will fill the industry vacancies. Now almost every large university offers specific robotics courses.

The European Union has provided large amounts of support for this, with some of the highest funding levels in the world. But we have a difficulty in taking research and coupling it to industry. The EU continues to fund robotics research and education, but we need more initiatives that crossover with industry applications.

4. Which changes in the robotics industry over the last 20 years are particularly interesting for you?

Twenty years ago, industrial robots were focused on traditional manufacturing, and were especially common in the car industry. By the late 90s /00s, robotics became lighter and more interactive, entering into the health and pharmaceutical industries. For example, there are now robots helping in spinal cord rehabilitation, with the robots working with therapists to achieve a more intense training regime. They have become an extension of the physiotherapist.  

In parallel, we have seen a growth in domestic robotics, and service robots – even robots in the entertainment industry. Assistive technology of the type seen in cars, for example, to help park, brake and more, is increasing our comfort level with autonomy, and as our confidence and familiarity increases we are likely to see more of it in all aspects of our lives.

5. How do you think the media’s attitude toward robotics is impacting general perception?

Twenty years ago, the media was fairly positive toward robotics, but now in some areas of the media there is a lot of concern about the dangers of AI. It is frustrating when the media, and even scientific journals group AI and robotics together without fully understanding or explaining the difference. It creates the wrong impression and if the media move in this direction and politicians pick up on it, it generates a cascade of unwarranted negativity toward robotics. As roboticists we have to work to correct these misconceptions. This is quite a European phenomenon; medical and healthcare robots are an exception because when a robot enhances a doctor’s abilities, that is seen as a good thing. In general, Asian culture is fascinated by robotics, but Europeans are much more conservative about new technology.

It’s quite possible that robots will take some jobs from people, but this isn’t a definite. More people work in offices now than they ever did, yet photocopiers, printers and computers did away with most secretarial jobs. Technology moves on, replaces old jobs and creates new jobs; this trend is visible throughout history.

6. Are there any particular applications or areas of research that you think are worth looking into for the future?

We focus on humanoids and centaur robots that go into dangerous environments like disasters or places that may have radiation. We’re also researching quadrupeds for farming, forestry and agriculture. The medical sectors remain a focus, with work being done in rehabilitation and prosthetics as well as medical robots for pediatrics. Often baby blood vessels are very delicate, so we have developed tech to take blood samples without damaging their tissue. These robots are not designed to replace jobs, rather they will cooperate with workers, to have a positive impact on health, wealth, safety and productivity.

7. What do you hope to see from Epson’s Win-A-Robot contest?

I like the idea of people being able to suggest their own ideas. What I want to see is the creativity people will bring to the competition, perhaps suggesting techniques and applications that professional roboticists have never considered. I want to see innovative ideas, that could be for industrial, social, domestic or service applications. It’s almost like creating a new industry niche.

8. You have authored more than 500 papers on robotics – how important is communicating effectively on the opportunities robotics offer

For me, it is essential.  We, as the robotics community, need to learn to communicate in a media friendly style, not just in a scientific style. I think this is why medical robotics are so well received – because people can connect with them and relate to why they’re important. I see one of my key jobs as selling an idea to an audience, whether it’s the general public or the scientific community.