Alumni Magazine Summer 2014 - page 7-8

Summer 2014
Summer 2014
O u r R o b o t s , O u r s e l v e s
by Doug McInnis
Ever since Isaac Asimov introduced “Robbie” the robot nursemaid entrusted
with the care of a young girl, engineers, scientists and dreamers of all ages have
imagined robots that could assist humans in all kinds of ways — from performing
mundane chores to becoming full-fledged family members. As technology has
advanced, robots are finally beginning to fulfill their early promise, with as yet
unimagined economic, social and cultural consequences.
Those endless vistas make the field of robotics a perfect gateway to introduce
children to the excitement and possibilities of the science and technology that
will have such a transformative impact on their own lives.
sponsored the FIRST Robotics team at
her high school in tiny Brasher Falls,
New York, Oakes signed up. Through
the team, she got to know Carroll, and
by extension Clarkson.
Clarkson’s robotics outreach
programs begin as early as kindergarten
for participating schools. Clarkson also
runs a low-cost Massive Open Online
Course (MOOC) on robotics to reach
schools that are either too small to afford
a full-scale program or too far away for
Clarkson students to serve as mentors.
In the past, kids learned
technology by tinkering with primitive
computers and by fixing up old
vehicles. Carroll, for example, learned
to program early computers and put
his first vehicle, an aging Volkswagen
van, in working order. By the time he
enrolled in the electrical and computer
engineering program at Syracuse
University, he had worked with
mechanical devices most of his life.
Today, kids lead much more
structured lives, Carroll says.
hildren with autism learn through
repetition. They need a teacher
with infinite patience who doesn’t
become frustrated when the student
hasn’t learned the color green after
50 tries. Clarkson junior Kimberly
Oakes ’16 thinks she has just the
candidate for the job — a 23-inch-tall
humanoid robot.
Emerging evidence indicates
that kids with autism relate better to
machines than to people. “They’re
finding that these children respond
really well to all forms of technology,”
Oakes says. So she is programming
the robot to teach autistic students,
a job that is very personal. Her
18-year-old brother Matthew is
Oakes credits Clarkson’s
programs that introduce robotics to
area public schools for her interest
in robots. Without the program, she
might well have been enrolled in
pharmacy school by now.
James Carroll, professor of
electrical and computer engineering,
began the outreach program in
the late 1990s. He sees robotics as
a mechanism to draw pre-college
students into science, technology,
engineering and mathematics.
Oakes, for instance, was lured
into robotics through the national
FIRST Robotics competition, in which
competing high school teams build
robots from scratch. When Clarkson
Robots teach problem
solving very well;
they represent a
complex marriage of
machines, computers,
programming and
artificial intelligence.
Kimberly Oakes ’16 and Prof. James Carroll
Th r ough Techno l og i ca l I n t e r v en t i ons
“They can provide an intermediate step.”
But first they must be programmed
for those tasks. So each day this summer,
Oakes heads to Clarkson's lab to refine
the robot’s skills.
The device equates to a small child
in size. Its features roughly approximate
a human face. Its speech, says Oakes, “is
surprisingly human-like in that it has a
variation in its intonation.”
is programming
the $15,000
device to teach
autistic students
to recognize
colors, shapes,
numbers and letters,
four areas they have
particular trouble with.
When Oakes finishes, the robot
will, for example, be able to ask a
student to pick up a flash card of a
particular color from a group of colored
cards. “The robot gives encouragement
if the answer is wrong and praise if the
answer is right,” says Oakes.
Oakes runs the simulations herself.
Fixing any program errors gobbles
time, she says. “The programs are large
and often the problems can be small
and not immediately obvious.” But she
has plenty of personal incentives
to get it right. “It can be
frustrating,” she says.
“But when I think of
the end goal, it helps
me to work through
the problems.”
“As a result, they don’t have the same
experiences I had.” He sees Clarkson
robotics outreach programs as a way
to fill the void. “The fact that my
Volkswagen was a machine was less
relevant than the fact you had to work
through problems to fix it,” says Carroll.
Robots teach problem solving very well;
they represent a complex marriage of
machines, computers, programming
and artificial intelligence.
To staff the outreach program,
Carroll uses his own Clarkson robotics
students to serve as mentors. “This
also has a secondary effect,” he says.
“When high school kids work with
Clarkson students who are only a year
or two older than themselves, they see
robotics as something they too can do.”
For many, the outreach program serves
as an early step towards a technology
degree. Kimberly Oakes is but one
of more than 125 area high school
students who have enrolled at Clarkson
as a result of robotics outreach.
For those who stay with it, robotics
offers the prospects of high-paying
jobs and a chance to boost American
manufacturing competitiveness. But the
benefits of robotics reach well beyond the
factory. For instance, millions of us now
own Roomba robotic vacuums. Some of
us have undergone robot-assisted surgery.
“We can build robots to remediate waste
in a nuclear disaster,” says Carroll.
Robots are also showing up in
fields where you might not expect
them. “Humanoid robots are making
their way into healthcare,” says Oakes.
“They can keep the elderly company.”
And if Oakes has her way, they may
become a central component in
efforts to help kids with autism.
In addition to teaching the
autistic children, robots may help
them learn to interact with their peers.
“Humanoid robots can lay the ground
work on how to interact,” says Oakes.
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