post by Cecily Pepper (2019 cohort)
My first summer school started with an invite via email. Despite my interest in the topic, my first thought was that robotics was not my area of expertise (coming from a social science background), so maybe I shouldn’t bother applying as I’d be out-of-my-depth. Although after some consideration, I thought it would create some great opportunities to meet new people from diverse backgrounds. So, I stopped worrying about my lack of knowledge in the area and just went for it; and I got a place!
The summer school was held digitally due to COVID-19 restrictions, which had both its benefits and pitfalls. On the first day, we were welcomed by Debra Fearnshaw and Professor Steve Benford, and were then given the opportunity to introduce ourselves. From this it was apparent that there was a wide variety of delegates from several universities, with a range of disciplines including social sciences, robotics, engineering and manufacturing. The first day mostly consisted of talks from experts about the challenges we face in connecting technology and the potential of co-robotics within the fields of agrirobotics, home and healthcare. The main task of the summer school was to create a cobot (collaborative robot) that could overcome some of the issues that COVID-19 has created or exacerbated. The issue that the group chose to address had to fall into one of the categories introduced on the first day: food production (agrirobotics), healthcare or home. Along with this challenge, more details were needed on function, technological components, and four key areas of the cobot design: ethics, communication, learning and safety. These aspects were introduced on the second day. After being split into groups at the end of the first day, I felt happy as my group had a range of experience and expertise between us, which I felt would bode well for the challenge as well as being beneficial for myself as I could learn something from everyone.
Similarly, the second day consisted mostly of talks, this time based on the four themes mentioned previously. The ethics discussion was interesting and included in-depth explanations around aspects to consider when reflecting upon the ethical consequences of our designs, such as privacy, law, security and personal ethics. An online activity followed the ethics talk but was soon interrupted by a technical glitch. Despite this, we were able to engage with alternative resources provided in order to reflect upon the ethics of our cobot design. This was useful both for our eventual design, as well as applying this to our own PhD research.
The other themes then followed, including a discussion around interaction and communication in technology. This was an insightful introduction to voice user interfaces and alike, and what the current research is focusing on in this field. While fascinating on its own, it was also useful in thinking about how to apply this to our cobot design, and which features may be useful or necessary for our cobot’s functionality. A talk on the third theme of learning was then delivered, including details about facial recognition and machine learning, and the applications of these in the field of robotics. Likewise, this was useful in reflecting upon how these features may be applicable in our design. Finally, the theme of safety was considered. This talk provided us with the knowledge and ability to consider safety aspects of our cobot, which was particularly apt when considering COVID safety implications too. Overall, the first two days were quite lengthy in terms of screen time (despite some breaks), and I found myself wilting slightly towards the end. However, I think we could all understand and sympathise in the difficulty of minimising screen time when there is a short space of time to complete all of the summer school activities.
On the final day, we split into our teams to create our cobot. This day was personally my favourite part of the summer school, as it was fantastic to work with such a variety of people who all brought different skills to the group. Together, we developed a cobot design and went through the themes from the previous day, ensuring we met the design brief and covered all bases. Probably the biggest challenge was keeping it simple, as we had so many ideas between us. Despite our abundance of ideas, we were strict with ourselves as a group to focus and keep the design simplistic. Additionally, the five-minute presentation time meant that we had to keep our design simple yet effective. We then presented our home assistant cobot, Squishy. Squishy was an inflatable, soft cobot designed to assist carers in lifting patients who were bed-bound (as occupational injuries are a significant problem within the care industry). Squishy’s soft design enabled comfort for the patient being lifted, while the modular design provided a cost-effective solution and the possibility of added-extras if necessary. Along with this, Squishy was beneficial in that it consisted of wipe-clean surfaces to enable effective cleaning in light of COVID-19, as well as aiding social distancing by reducing the need for carer-patient contact. Other features of Squishy included machine-learned skeletal tracking and thermal cameras to aid safe functionality, and minimal personal data collection to maintain ethical standards. After the presentations and following questions, the judges deliberated. Results were in…my team were the winners! While I was happy to have won with my team, the most fruitful part of the experience for me was meeting and learning from others who had different backgrounds, perceptions and ideas.
Overall, I felt the summer school was well-organised and a fantastic opportunity to work with new people from diverse backgrounds, and I was very glad to be a part of it. I’m also pleased I overcame the ‘Imposter Syndrome’ feeling of not believing I would know enough or have enough experience to be a valuable delegate in the summer school. So, my advice to all students would be: don’t underestimate what you can contribute, don’t overthink it, and just go for it; you might end up winning!