Stuart Miller is a man with a mission – to put a robot in the hands of every schoolboy in Scotland.
As Director of the National Robotarium in Edinburgh, he is best positioned to realize this ambition.
In a bright meeting room at the Robotarium, where you’re greeted by a robo-receptionist, Miller explains why he’s excited by inspiring future generations.
“Two things drew me here above all,” he says. “One was the potential for robotics to help address societal issues, such as climate change, health and social care. Another goal was to help young people understand the potential of robotics and artificial intelligence, and somehow take up a career in robotics.
“When you get to a certain point in your career, you start to wonder what you can give back.”
The National Robotarium – a UK center of excellence that opened in late September on the Heriot-Watt campus on the outskirts of Edinburgh in partnership with the University of Edinburgh – has four main missions.
The first is to host robotics startups and AI companies and help them grow. The Touch Lab, which is developing electronic skin to give robots a human-like sense of touch, is already in place. So does Crover, which has created a robot to dig inside silos and capture data to ensure grain is properly stored. “It’s a universal app and it’s important because it replaces doing it manually, which is dangerous,” Miller explains.
The second task is to work with industry partners, at the Large Robotic and Autonomous Systems Laboratory (RAS Lab for short), designed as a test bed for trying out big new robotic ideas.
Smaller laboratories are also available to industry partners and researchers.
Third task – to welcome these researchers from universities across the UK to use the National Robotarium facilities (and the robots themselves) for their pioneering work.
All three of these tasks are progressing very well, but it’s the fourth task, the National Robotarium’s outreach work, that really energizes Miller—especially the opportunity to walk in on kids and instill a love of robots at an early age.
“The important thing for children is to capture their imagination,” he says. “There has already been robotics work going on with schools, but this is really accelerating. We have two new staff who have this work as a strong focus, and an area equipped with robot technology that we have set aside for school visits..
“What gets them excited is the hands-on experience — the chance to control their own robots and interact with the robots.”
Children tend to like hyper-mobile, fast-programmed robots, Miller says, which help them better understand other science subjects in the school curriculum.
“The most excitement we generate is when we run a Spot robot,” says Miller. “Spot is a true publicity seeker who loves attention!”
However, it’s not just about one fun visit – but building a long-term relationship: “We want it to be the first of many times young people will see us during their teaching careers. We want to keep them engaged by developing a national Robotarium that connects them with us – so we can From sending them videos, inviting them to events, and showing them career paths.
“And we have bigger ideas – wouldn’t it be great to put an educational robot into the hands of every secondary school pupil in Scotland, and set up a small business to build and maintain these robots?”
That’s a long-term ambition — and right now, Miller is busy, busy, busy with all four of those tasks.
“Our challenges at the moment are similar to those facing a startup that has had so many customers knocking on its door,” he says. “We need to bring a lot of new people into the organization very quickly and keep them up to date — but at the same time respond to multiple requests for connection and engagement.”
One day, Miller meets representatives from a company in Brazil. The next day, he is scheduled to meet with an energy company and later this week, a pharmaceutical company.”
And when it comes to bringing in those new employees, the National Robotarium is already hiring.
“We have a team of 10 engineers, a couple of project managers who work as an engineering firm – and we’re looking for another 5 or 6,” says Miller. “We have the facilities in terms of lab space and workshops for building and testing robots, as well as the robots themselves.
“In the RAS lab, we work with offshore renewable energy companies that are looking at the maintenance and inspection of offshore assets. We work with the James Hutton Institute in Agriculture, with a hotel group, with the Grampian Health Board — and we’re talking to a pharmaceutical company and a telecom company about the intersection of 5G and robotics.”
Two specific partnerships were featured at the opening – Fourier Intelligence, which works in physiotherapy and therapy, and Tata Consulting Services, a global information technology company.
“We combine research with the practical application of technology,” Miller explains. “The third component is the customer problem – what are they trying to solve and how can we help? We have the people, the equipment and the facilities to help them.”
In addition to working with industry, Miller is keenly aware of Robotarium’s broader societal responsibility.
“It’s a really important part of what we’re here for,” he says. “As the UK’s National Robotarium, we must have a voice in the discussion about what the future looks like – to speak to the public at large and to be heard too.
“There is a need to demystify what robotics and AI mean for the future. We are trying to have a positive impact on the economy and society, and I firmly believe that robotics and AI need to achieve this – not by preaching to people but having a conversation that helps them explore the topic themselves.
“We need to show examples of where it works, particularly in terms of health and social care, and deliver real benefits – like a robot working alongside a nurse could allow that nurse to care for 10 patients instead of five.”
About the National Robotarium
The National Robotarium was set up as part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland Region Deal – a partnership between the British and Scottish Government and local authorities across the region. City Deal funded the £22.4m capital cost to build the Robotarium.
The National Robotarium is a British center, where experts from any university can get help with grant applications, conduct grant-funded research, and access space, facilities, and robotics. However, as Stuart Miller says: “We are closely associated with Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt because they have been involved in building the Robotarium together since day one.”
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