To coincide with Women in Engineering Day, Dr Patricia Shaw, an EPSRC-supported researcher at Aberystwyth University, describes her passion for robots, and explains how robotics is helping her research into how humans start learning from the moment they are born.
I have been interested in computers since I was very young, trying to understand how they work and how to program them. Growing up, watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was fascinated by the android character Data, along with other intelligent robots in sci-fi.
When I first came across the idea of Artificial Intelligence, I knew this was something I wanted to learn more about. Studying the topic at Durham University led me on to a PhD researching Intelligent Agents. However, as this focused on software simulation, it was lacking the real-world element. As a result, when the opportunity arose to work with a humanoid robot at Aberystwyth University, I leapt at it.
I lead a team of researchers, pushing the research forward, and am also helping to develop the next generation of engineers and scientists. Supporting the students’ learning, and hopefully inspiring some of them to continue the research in the future, is highly motivating.
Working with robots is a lot of fun. We have some really impressive
toys that come in all shapes and sizes. You can write even a simple program and actually see it in action – moving the robot and interacting with the environment. That is not to say that it always works, but the satisfaction is even greater when you have worked through a difficult problem and finally get it running.
As robots become more commonplace, the social and psychological implications of human-robot interaction become more important. I’m lucky enough to work with an iCub robot, which is modelled on a young child.
Being humanoid in shape and child-sized, the iCub tends to elicit a friendly, almost caring response from children and adults alike. This is used a lot by researchers studying how members of the public can teach the robot to perform a task. This involves a lot of crossover between computer science and psychology. I entered a picture I took of the iCub in the 2015/16 EPSRC Science Photo Competition – and was delighted when it won first prize in the People category.
I work with some really amazing people doing some great research in a wide variety of topics – from space robotics and image processing to computational biology and knowledge-based reasoning. They encourage me to keep pushing forward and doing the best I can.
The research we are doing aims to understand how humans learn starting from birth, and apply it to a robotic platform. This is really exciting because not only do we get to understand more about how our children develop, we get to use this knowledge to help the robot learn. By helping the robot to learn about how to move and interact with its environment, it is more likely to be able to deal with unexpected situations than if it were simply told what to do. We also aim to help psychologists better understand how and why certain behaviours develop in certain orders.
I also see robots being used more prominently in the future, whether exploring environments that are unsafe or inaccessible to humans, or working alongside humans. For this to be possible, the robots need to be able to deal with a lot of unknown scenarios that are very difficult to prepare for without the ability to learn and adapt.
I have been very fortunate through my career not to have had many obstacles or challenges to overcome. As a researcher, it is quite common to move between multiple short-term contracts at different institutions, possibly even worldwide. However, after moving to Aberystwyth and settling down, I worked hard to gain a permanent position. Now, the biggest challenge is the age-old problem of maintaining a good work-life balance, for which my partner is very supportive.
The first annual National Robotics Week, run by the UK-Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network and supported by EPSRC, continues until 1 July, providing a unique opportunity to learn about the current state-of-the-art robotic technology, discuss the role of robots and artificial intelligence in our lives, and inspire the next generation of designers and engineers.
Find out more at the UK Robotics Week website.