Sue Keay, 48, robotics chief
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