Robotics and AI
Good bot, bad bot
October 31, 2023
In the animated movie Wall-E by Disney and Pixar, a solitary robot tries to clean up garbage on an uninhabited, devastated Earth, trashed by centuries of human exploitation. The dystopian future plot takes a turn towards the end of the film, when (spoiler alert) Wall-E and a fellow robot, with the support of a few humans that returned to Earth, work to restore the planet, seed by seed.
If in fiction robots can save humanity from itself and lead Earth towards environmental sustainability, what could happen in real life? That was one of the questions posed at this year’s Robotics & AI Symposium (RAIS2023), put on by Queen's Ingenuity Labs Research Institute on Oct. 12.
“Multidisciplinary researchers at Ingenuity Labs are focused on creating future intelligent systems and robotic machines that do good things for people and the planet that we inhabit together,” says Ingenuity Labs Director, Joshua Marshall. “The selection of this year’s debate question was deliberate, aimed at pushing both ourselves and our research partners to scrutinize the benefits and consequences of their efforts through the lens of the UN SDGs.”
The debate was moderated by technology journalist and author Amber Mac and led by Queen’s researchers Heather Aldersey (School of Rehabilitation Therapy), Jackson Crane (Mechanical and Materials Engineering) and Melissa Greeff (Electrical and Computer Engineering), as well as invited speaker Michael Jenkin, from York University. Half the panel was asked to discuss how robots can help us move towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), while the other team had to highlight the ways in which robots can hinder sustainability.
“We need innovation, including robotics, more than ever,” started Dr. Aldersey, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Disability Inclusive Development and Special Advisor to the Principal on UN SDGs. She mentioned numerous situations where robots were used to support a variety of SDGs, including SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being (e.g., robots played a key role in confronting Covid-19, including in testing and disinfecting), SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth (e.g., robots can substitute humans in dangerous jobs and support workers in several tasks), and SDG 13: Climate Action (e.g., robots can help us model the impacts of climate change and assist disaster response).
Dr. Greeff added that the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan in 2011 triggered important research in the field of robotics, developing knowledge that was later applied to post-disaster response and recovery. She also commented that, throughout history, improving productivity was a key factor in improving human life quality, and robotics and AI are some of the tools we can use to improve productivity.
While recognizing that increased productivity has played a significant role in reducing poverty, Dr. Crane counterargued that maybe we are now at a point where we need to work on equality of access and opportunities, rather than solely focusing on increasing productivity. Dr. Jenkin discussed how robots, while helpful in developed countries, are still mostly unavailable in poorer regions of the world, worsening inequalities. The panelists also raised concerns about electronic waste, energy management, and carbon emissions.
After the debate, attendees were invited to vote on whether robotics help or hinder progress on the SDGs. The room was filled with some cautious optimism: while the International Federation of Robotics has stated that 13 out of 17 SDGs can be supported by robotics, the research community knows that developing new technologies is just a starting point. “Robotics can be one piece of the sustainability puzzle, but it is definitely not the only one,” concluded Dr. Aldersey.
“Research centres and institutes – like Ingenuity Labs – are often catalysts for pushing the boundaries of knowledge and bringing together diverse perspectives for more impactful research,” says Dr. Marshall. “Events like this remind us that our research and scholarly activities must not take place in isolation, without consideration for broader contexts and purposes.”
A day dedicated to robotics and AI research
This was the third edition of Ingenuity Labs’ annual symposium. The event, that gathered more than 120 researchers and students from Queen’s and beyond, also included a student poster competition, a debate on the role of university and industrial labs in AI research, and a keynote by Angela Schoellig from the Technical University of Munich on how to improve robotics with support of machine learning. Seven corporate exhibitors also showcased their robotics products, including MDA – which let people take a virtual tour of the international space station – Clearpath Robotics, Indro Robotics, Kinova, Independent Robotics, and Maintenance Drone.
Ingenuity Labs Research is a collaborative research initiative that connects 39 faculty members and more than 100 graduate students at Queen’s dedicated to three main research topics: smart environments and infrastructures, human sensing and assistive devices, and intelligent mobile systems. The annual symposium aims to stimulate debate and reflection about the social impact of this area of research.