Roboticist Danica Kragic Talks Autonomous Systems, Ethics, and Being Featured by Vogue

The IEEE Fellow is working to make robots more humanlike

10 April 2017

Instead of featuring supermodels and celebrities to showcase her 2016 clothing line, Swedish fashion designer Carin Rodebjer chose women she considers to be doing extraordinary work for her “I Am” video campaign, which ran last year on Vogue online. One of those profiled was IEEE Fellow Danica Kragic.

Kragic is vice dean of the School of Computer Science and Communication at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm. As director of the university’s Centre for Autonomous Systems, she’s developing vision for robots, as well as object-grasping and -manipulating systems, to give them motor skills that make them more like humans.

Kragic did some modeling as a teenager, but once she started studying robotics at the University of Rijeka, Croatia, that became her passion. She received the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s 2007 Early Academic Career Award, given to society members working in the field less than seven years after being granted their highest academic degree. She was honored “for contributions to visually guided manipulation.” Last year she was elevated to IEEE Fellow for “contributions to vision-based systems and robotic object manipulation.”

The Institute asked Kragic about her participation in the “I Am” campaign, her current projects, and where she stands on robots taking jobs from humans.

How did you get involved in the “I Am” campaign?

A mutual friend who introduced me to Carin told me about the campaign. It was about strong women who do things their own way. I loved it. I also wanted to challenge myself to do something outside my comfort zone. Modeling certainly was that.

I felt even better about participating because she designed her new line of clothing for professional women. Plus, I like fashion and design. And the right clothes can make you feel more powerful.

Tell us about some of your projects at your university.

I’m very excited about a grant we received in 2015 from the Wallenberg Autonomous Systems and Software Project (WASP). It’s a 10-year-long project financed by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, one of the largest funders of research in Sweden. WASP addresses research on autonomous systems acting in collaboration with humans, adapting such systems to their environment through sensors, information, and knowledge, and forming intelligent systems of systems.

For example, a robot is cooking a stew and must stir it but can’t find a ladle. How does it understand that it can also use a spoon but not a pen? Humans use their senses to understand their surroundings. We look at and feel the spoon to decide whether it will be good for stirring. Likewise, we want to enable robots to combine information from their sensors that will lead them to more intelligent decisions and to interact better with the world around them.

We want robots to adapt to their surroundings and cope with varying situations far from the static environment of a factory conveyor belt. We’re trying to get robots to learn new tasks on their own with the help of information they already possess or receive from people around them.

We’re using mathematical methods to develop new theories for such behavior, and new ways of organizing the data generated by a robot’s sensors—data in the form of images, sounds or whatever else the robot perceives. Then the robot uses this data to make its own decisions.

In the “I Am” video, you say you enjoy sewing. What do you make, and are there similarities between sewing and your work?

It’s a hobby. My grandmother was a seamstress, and my mother likes to sew. I picked it up from them. Our family designed and made clothes that were different from the fashion of the time as a way to express ourselves. I still sew such pieces. I have tons of fabric that I bought on my travels. They’re like souvenirs.

Research and sewing are both about planning, implementing, assessing, and improving. Even if the end results are so different, both are about being creative and not giving up when things get tough or when the finished product doesn’t turn out as you expected. Both are also about trying to do things in a new way and not being scared of failing.

IEEE recently released its “Ethically Aligned Design” report, which addresses how designers of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems should keep in mind moral values and ethical principles. Are such guidelines needed?

Any technology, including robotics, needs to be developed with care and continuously assessed in various scenarios. In robotics, it’s not only about developing technology but also about educating people to use the technology properly. We need more interdisciplinary research and discussion. We need participation by researchers from other communities to help us ensure the developments are beneficial to society in the long term.

Concerns are being raised that robots and automation will lead to fewer jobs for people. What about that?

I see robots as advanced tools that can take over jobs humans should not be doing in the first place—jobs, like mining, that are dirty, dull, and dangerous. But robots can also collaborate with people and make their jobs easier. I would love to see robots in hospitals change bed linens and help patients get out of bed, so that nurses can focus on what they were trained to do. I would also like to see a combination of teachers and robots in classrooms. The robots could adapt to individual students’ needs and make sure they’re following what’s being taught. For me, robots are not to be used instead of humans but together with humans.

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