Q&A

Sue Keay, 48, ro­bot­ics chief

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - FRONT - By Penny Durham Photography Jeff Cam­den

Who is this lit­tle guy with you? This is Pep­per, part of a so­cial robot plat­form we’re work­ing on at the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Robotic Vi­sion. We’re ex­plor­ing his abil­ity to “see” and re­spond to hu­mans, and how to ap­ply that in health­care. What does the cen­tre do? We’re bring­ing the sci­ence of com­puter vi­sion to ro­bots. The aim is to make them per­cep­tive, and ap­ply that to a range of tech­nolo­gies. We’re a col­lab­o­ra­tion of four Aus­tralian and five in­ter­na­tional uni­ver­si­ties, based at Queens­land Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy. The ACRV re­cently won the global Ama­zon Ro­bot­ics Chal­lenge for ma­chines that can iden­tify and pick up ware­house goods. What are some other ap­pli­ca­tions? We’ve worked in agriculture, on fruit pick­ing and ap­ply­ing her­bi­cide to weeds. And health­care: a lot of our re­search is into robotic as­sis­tance in or­thopaedic surgery. Haven’t ro­bots been able to “see” in the past? The Mark 1 Per­cep­tron of 1958 [a wardrobe with a cam­era that learned how to tell a square from a tri­an­gle] is a good ex­am­ple of how in the early days ro­bot­ics did try to use vi­sion, but it took so long for them to process the in­for­ma­tion it wasn’t use­ful. Roboti­cists turned to laser rangefind­ers in­stead. Now it’s a mat­ter of get­ting ro­bots to [fast and ac­cu­rately] in­ter­pret the in­for­ma­tion de­tected with a cam­era. As chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the ACRV, you have an un­usual back­ground: fashion, a Phd in earth sci­ences? Peo­ple can con­trib­ute in ro­bot­ics with­out be­ing a com­puter sci­en­tist or elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer – we need peo­ple who un­der­stand hu­man-com­puter in­ter­ac­tion; who bring a whole range of skills. My skills as a sci­en­tist are put to use. Tesla co-founder Elon Musk says ro­bot­ics and AI are the great­est threat to our civil­i­sa­tion. Is there any truth in that? We get a lot of ques­tions about ro­bots tak­ing jobs. When you work in a lab and watch ro­bots un­able to open doors or go up and down stairs, they seem a long way from tak­ing anybody’s job. But I think peo­ple are right to be con­cerned; there are prob­a­bly a lot of jobs in fi­nance that are be­ing re­placed by AI. I think it’s more of a hu­man risk if the ben­e­fits of these tech­nolo­gies are not evenly dis­trib­uted across so­ci­ety. You were raised in New­cas­tle, where your fa­ther Colin was a physics pro­fes­sor and sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor. This must have had a big im­pact on you. My par­ents were very sci­ence-fo­cused. Dad was at the Uni­ver­sity of New­cas­tle and my mum was one of the first peo­ple to try to digi­tise li­brary sys­tems. My sci­ence teacher at school said I showed no ap­ti­tude … but along with my sis­ter [An­dra, man­ag­ing direc­tor of Sil­i­con Val­ley Ro­bot­ics] I ended up in ro­bot­ics any­way. You were re­cently named one of the female “Su­per­stars of STEM” by Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Aus­tralia. How can we en­cour­age more girls in these ar­eas? More women be­ing in­volved seems to be the best cure. Girls-only teach­ing seems to make for a more sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment – but how do you repli­cate that in the work­place? I think girls are very quick to pick up on the so­cial nu­ances that tell them they’re not wel­come in some ar­eas. The Su­per­stars pro­gram is try­ing to show that there are role mod­els in these ar­eas.

my sci­ence teacher at school said i showed no ap­ti­tude

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