An All-women Organizing Committee Brings Diversity to Robotics Conference

Meet the women behind this year’s IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s flagship event

30 July 2015

For the first time, an all-women committee organized the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation held in May in Seattle, helping to raise the visibility of women in the field.

The committee was comprised this way because the conference organizers realized few women were represented at robotics events. “With the support of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, we made it a point to include a strong roster of women researchers to speak at the sessions,” says IEEE Fellow Lynne E. Parker, the committee’s chair and the division director for the Information and Intelligent Systems Division at the U.S. National Science Foundation, in Arlington, Va. Two of the three plenary speakers and half of the 12 keynote speakers were women. Parker notes that there was visibly more involvement of women at this year’s conference.

Along with Parker, organizers included Fellow Nancy M. Amato, professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M University who also served as a chair of the committee, as well as a team of almost 50 other women in robotics. They included M. Bernardine Dias, associate research professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University; IEEE Member G. Ayorkor Korsah, an assistant professor of computer science at Ashesi University College; and Graduate Student Member Chinwe Ekenna, a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University.

The Institute caught up with the organizers to find out how to get more women into the field and their thoughts about the future of robotics.

In addition to recruiting more women to speak at the conference, how did being an all-women committee make this year’s conference different from previous years?

AMATO AND PARKER: We wanted the opportunity to emphasize and celebrate the diversity of roboticists in our research community—and not just women, but also students and researchers from developing countries. We hosted a series of events to draw a more diversified mix of attendees. These included A Go, Girl, Go! session that brought together more than 600 middle and high school girls to learn about career paths in robotics. The Becoming a Robot Guru workshop introduced students to research areas in the field. And the Developing Countries Forum highlighted robotics education and research in places like India and throughout Africa.

We also made it our goal to provide opportunities to give feedback, particularly to students, on research in the early stages and helping them with career guidance. We introduced several new programs in this area including a Ph.D. forum and a career fair, which involved on-site interviews with prospective employees.

What is your advice for those interested in breaking into the robotics field, including women?

KORSAH: Robotics is a vast field and requires a variety of expertise. This can be overwhelming to those trying to enter it. Creating a complete robotics system usually involves a great deal of interdisciplinary teamwork, and no one person has all the expertise needed to create one from scratch. Therefore, people enter robotics from a variety of fields including computer science, mechanical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, mathematics, design, and cognitive science.

You should start by getting an overview of the field, which can be done by taking an introductory course at a university or by simply reading about it. I like The Robotics Primer—a very accessible introduction to robotics for people from any background and written by IEEE Fellow Maja Mataric, the founding director of the University of Southern California’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center, in Los Angeles. Then, depending on your interest and background, begin an in-depth exploration of some aspect of robotics such as sensing, controls, planning, cognition, human-robot interaction, or vision.

DIAS: Robotics is a very hands-on field, so dive in and learn while playing. There are an increasing number of robot kits to enable people of different ages and backgrounds to delve in. Getting started in robotics is easier than it has ever been.

Based on this year’s sessions, what are your predictions for the future of robotics?

KORSAH: Robotics is moving in the direction of more autonomy and more cooperation with humans. Robots and people will be working closely together in teams. Human-robot interfaces will become more important so that people can give robots input for decision-making.

DIAS: I think the immediate future of robotics is, perhaps ironically, increasingly human! It is clear that robotics will not play a significant role in society if robots cannot interact and collaborate with people in ways that are not intimidating. Also, the line between robots and humans will start to blur as people with disabilities or injuries get robotic body parts and as robots take on a variety of human-like characteristics. Topics such as soft robotics, human-robot interaction, and rehabilitation robotics highlighted these trends.

As roboticists, we have the responsibility to inform and lead meaningful dialogue on how robotics can impact the future in positive and negative ways. Some of this dialogue was also presented at the conference.

EKENNA: Robotics is a very interesting research area that has unfortunately been plagued with a lot of negative myths. People having less control in certain situations should be seen in a more positive light, such as in search-and-rescue situations or diffusing bombs. The development of fully autonomous robots should be actively encouraged, and more research should be done in this field due to its importance and necessity.

Your committee also organized the Developing Countries Forum highlighting robotics work in those areas. What are some of the projects being developed? And how are they changing lives?

KORSAH: There are exciting research and educational projects, including a low-cost search-and-rescue robot from researchers at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, a competition out of Egypt in which participants must build and develop robots to detect landmines, and an automated tutor developed by Carnegie Mellon used by students in several developing countries to teach them how to write in braille.

DIAS: There were also many exciting projects that we were not able to present in the forum. For example, the self-powered aluminum giant traffic police robots in the Democratic Republic of Congo that are helping to regulate traffic. We also wanted to make sure the forum didn’t end at the conference so we created an interactive website to highlight relevant work. We invite anyone interested in the topic to contribute.

What are you most excited about in the field for the next year or two?

DIAS: To see the public more accepting of robots and more realistic in their expectations of them. Just a few years ago when we had people tour our robotics labs, they all expected to see ones that looked like Terminator or R2D2. Now we get people of all ages visiting our labs and excited to see robots of different shapes, sizes, and capabilities. 

Increasingly, robotics is having an impact on education and entertainment with several robotic toys and educational robots available on the market. Another exciting area in robotics is its impact on the medical field, including surgery and prosthetics.

EKENNA: The various robots that are being developed for search-and-rescue missions and also underwater marine robots. These are necessary to aid humanitarian efforts. There is also a lot of research going into robots that aid people with disabilities, including but not limited to sight and speech.

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