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My research is focused on building AI systems and robots that can talk to humans like real people. For effective collaboration between future AIs and robots, it’s important they should be able to converse using natural language rather than by using commands on screens and keyboards. That means both being able to understand human speech and to generate useful and appropriate responses for people, for example when answering questions or assisting in a task. I’m especially focussed on conversational interactions, where people and machines collaborate using sequences of utterances, and where there is a context of interaction, for example a shared task, or an image or video.
Currently, we’re working on developing Large Language Models (LLMs), like ChatGPT, for robots. This is really exciting as it means humans and robots can collaborate more effectively as the information shared is more accurate and trustworthy than before. It can also be used in visual situations, talking about images or videos for example, and can handle conversations that involve more than one person in noisy or complex settings.
My role as academic lead at the National Robotarium means I’ll oversee the facility’s research strategy and strengthen academic collaborations across both partner institutions, Heriot-Watt and The University of Edinburgh.
As well as providing academic oversight to t he National Robotarium, I also work at our spin-out company Alana AI. Most of my time there is working with other scientists to develop new systems and models for human-language processing, collecting data to train the systems, and then evaluating them in different experiments with people.
As I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years, I have several! The first would be at Stanford University where, back in 2001, we created one of the very first systems for humans to interact using conversational speech with robots. This led to a collaboration with researchers at NASA.
The next was when I was collaborating with researchers from Professor Steve Young’s group at Cambridge University. Together we pioneered Reinforcement Learning methods for conversational AI in a series of EU-funded project.
More recently, a highlight has been competing in the Amazon Alexa Prize for several years, where we deployed our conversational AI systems across the US, reaching the final each time. That real-world experience led to the formation of our spin-out company Alana AI, which is now working on medical applications of conversational AI.
I hope my research will lead to everyone in the world having access to their own private and personal conversational AI assistant that can support their effectiveness, creativity, critical thinking, and wellbeing. That said, as well as huge opportunities, there are also potential pitfalls in the recent development of LLMs and conversational robots. It’s important to me to engage with a variety of perspectives and experiences that are relevant for how we develop such technology in the future.
My work is primarily focused in robotics and perception in the agricultural context. It goes from new sensors and sensing techniques to new robotic platforms and motion strategies that could benefit the agriculture industry. Although lately my work has been focused on new ways to characterise groves, it still essentially looks to address fundamental problems in robotics, such as new motion strategies conditioned to environment, task and energy constraints.
I am committed to supporting and developing the talented researchers of the future. Currently, sustainable agriculture is a very important global issue and I feel it is my duty to encourage and inspire the next generation who will help solve the problems that are still to come.
However, I would like to emphasise that my work is divided into two: 1. the work that I do as part of my research and 2. the work I do when an industrial challenge appears. The best times are when both dimensions converge!
Nowadays, worldwide agriculture is part of a new technology revolution that aims to address modern challenges, such as the carbon footprint, green agriculture (the replacement of combustion engines for electric ones), and the lack of human workforce, which has been a latent problem in the last few decades. World population grows but farms are emptier now than in the 1980s. New generations are leaving farms to live in cities where they can get new job opportunities and that leaves farms in a very difficult situation. Robotics and technology in general seem to be a solution, even partially, to the problems faced by the agricultural sector and this is where our work can achieve positive impact. Agriculture, from a robotics perspective, is still an unknown scenario and there is a lot of work to be done to improve the efficiency of the agricultural process as a whole.
At this point, I could cite a few publications or patents but, instead, I prefer to mention my graduates. They represent the greatest achievements in my career. They are working as researchers or academics in several countries, and some of them are working with the finest researchers in the field. I’m happy to see that they are following the path they started with me.
I’m also particularly proud of being an Associate Editor of the two top journals in the field: Computers and Electronics in Agriculture, and Biosystems Engineering. They are the reference journals for robotics and perception in agriculture.
Finally, coming to the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt and being part of an amazing team of researchers from the National Robotarium, has been a very notable step in my career to date.
The National Robotarium represents an amazing opportunity to create robotic solutions to the challenges faced by industry and society. It recognises the intensive work undertaken by the researchers and academics, and their students, with support of the institutions that are part of it. In time, I have no doubt that the National Robotarium will be recognisable worldwide for its excellence, not only in research but also because of its innovate solutions to the industry problems of today.
The role is very varied. I am mainly focused on writing software for autonomy and path-planning, but get to join in on the design process for hardware too as well as leading technical projects and going on lots of field trials. In addition, as I come from the academic side, I am still able to continue my research when projects we’re working on overlap with my field of interest.
I have the honour of being the first engineer hired for the National Robotarium. Prior to that, I held a postdoctoral position within the ORCA Hub, which I started after completing my PhD in Marine Robotics from Heriot-Watt University. As the ORCA project transitioned to the National Robotarium, where we can apply the latest research to solve problems that industries are facing, it was the ideal next step for me.
It started in 2010, when I started studying robotics at Mälardalen’s University in my home country of Sweden. I was first drawn to it to build prosthetics for amputees but during a project course, we built an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) to compete in RoboSub. I found my true passion in this project and marine robotics has been my main focus ever since.
I grew up on an island, Gotland, in the middle of the Baltic Sea, so the ocean has always held an important role in my life. It can be a place of calm and relaxation and yet it is also a very treacherous environment for humans to work in. As the UK expands its energy to offshore wind farms, it is becoming increasingly important to keep people safe in these environments. The deployment of marine robots enables operators to manage inspections and repairs from land instead of offshore. From a research perspective, there are so many problems in marine robotics left for us to solve. For example, there is no reliable way for fast communication in water and, as autonomous systems need this to be robust and reliable, it’s a very interesting challenge to work on.
The National Robotarium has been doing great outreach to show the benefits of robotics and AI. We are often showcasing our robots, both on land and in water, demonstrating tasks that they can accomplish in real life. So far, I have not seen anyone who has not been impressed – seeing a remote-controlled mechanical dog or an underwater robot move around is mesmerising! I’m sure that by continuing to show children and the public that they too can be future roboticists will make many of them start tinkering with one of the robot beginner kits that exist today.
The National Robotarium bridges the gap between industry and research. We want industry to be able to use the latest research to deliver safer and more efficient operations and collaborating with the National Robotarium is a great way to utilise our specialists’ knowledge and test how far a project can go in a short period of time.
Since I was very young I have always had a strong interest in science and engineering, with a particular passion for space science and engineering.
My first degree was a BSc (Hons) in Physics from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow followed by an MSc in High Power Radio Frequency Science and Engineering, and PhD in Space beam-wave interaction Physics. I had not necessarily thought about my career ‘path’ when I was much younger and just starting my undergraduate degree, however by the time I finished my degree, I knew I wanted to work in positions that were conducting space related research.
My step into the robotics sector came through my first role as a Research Associate in the Space Mechatronic (SMeSTech) Laboratory at the University of Strathclyde, working across engineering, physics and chemistry. After working in the Mechatronics laboratory as a space systems design engineer, I got a position in the Soft Systems Group at the University of Edinburgh where I worked briefly on the ORCA (Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets) project and set-up a Robotics SuperLab with Prof. Adam Stokes, who is now one of the co-academic leads for the National Robotarium.
I love working in the field of robotics as it is consistently interesting and demonstrating great innovation.
As a disruptive technology, it is always radically changing and contributing to advances in technology. There are also different forms of robotics such as modular (micro to industrial scale), wearable technology and soft robotic solutions. It is completely multidisciplinary with applications for a huge variety of sectors such as space, agriculture, healthcare and manufacturing, all of which add to the excitement for my curious mind.
I am always asking myself why does this happen and how does this happen. Science and engineering give me the ability to investigate and explain how things work, including the natural processes of the universe. My mother told me that from an early age my favourite question was “Why for?!” which I would ask my parents over and over for an explanation as to why things were doing what they do, and this is still the case today!
I love new experiences and being a Project Manager at the National Robotarium allows me to meet people and go to places and have discussions with a variety of sectors that I ordinally may not.
Day-to-day, the job is very busy. My tasks involve keeping track of the progress of various different robotics projects, devising mitigation plans to ensure deadlines and deliverable goals are met, meeting with industry stakeholders and working closely with our team of Robotics Engineers.
International Women’s Day was this month. What advice would you give to women and girls who are interested in a STEM career?
My advice would be to just get into it. If this is what you want to do and you have a passion for science and engineering, then get involved.
It is also good to surround yourself with like-minded, ambitious people and take advice from those who have gone before you and established themselves in similar fields. I am privileged to have been a finalist for the WES (Women in Engineering society) Top 50 Women in Engineering (Sustainability) 2020 as well as the winner of WES Top 50 Women in Engineering (Engineering Heroes) 2021 and it was wonderful to get recognition from my peers and mentors.
Remember, no two people’s paths are the same, so don’t compare yourself to others. My path to where I am now was a winding one but that didn’t stop me from getting there. So keep your head down, eyes up and remember: failure is not an option!
The National Robotarium is always considering the future of robotics and its integration into our society. It is a world-leading centre that strives to have impact on society through the development and adoption of robotic solutions, with collaborations across academia and industry around the world.
It’s important to have a clear understanding of the purpose and scope of the project. For the National Robotarium, I received a concise brief and worked in close collaboration with a small yet highly knowledgeable project team throughout my design process, which was invaluable.
Starting with scribbles as a visual exploration of thoughts, I approach design with the intention to arrive at a solution with a strong rationale, a clear purpose and meaning.
I also got inspiration from immersing myself in design research, reading relevant research papers, watching NASA talks, and aligning my findings to nature and wellbeing. It was this process that helped me arrive at the ‘origami’ approach - a true eureka moment! The rationale was sound and made perfect sense for The National Robotarium. I was inspired, excited, and motivated to develop the design further.
When creating a brand identity, it is important to consider many applications and scenarios. I intended the finished design to simply fit wherever it was placed, appearing effortless in its presence – subtle and bold in equal measure.
I was fortunate to collaborate with the architects and project teams and get access to building plans early in the project. It was important to me that the brands pattern design flowed through the building with consistency in size on manifestations and wall graphics.
For any design challenge, understanding the brief, the platform, the story, and the audience is critical to a successful solution. At this stage the brand identity was like a creative muscle memory to me, so this was a relatively easier solution to solve. I had a clear creative approach in my mind for an impactful website design. The team at The National Robotarium thankfully agreed.
Science and technology is inspired by nature and people’s needs. The National Robotarium creates the opportunity for researchers and businesses to responsibly develop robotics and technology, with people and their challenges at the heart of the process. The global impact of their creative solutions in healthcare, wellbeing, security and safety will positively impact future generations.
My research project is investigating how and to what extent an adaptive robotic coach can be used to aid the process of long-term rehabilitation after stroke and adherence to repetitive solo practices in squash. So far I have run a study using the Pepper robot in which it coached participants through 15-minute solo practice sessions.
Next, we will be investigating if a very similar system can be used to coach users through individual rehabilitation sessions. If this is successful, the final stage of the project will be to investigate the long-term effects of such a system on the motivation and adherence of both groups of people to their respective individual exercise routines, when the system adapts its behaviours to individual users.
I hope that the work I do in my PhD can have a real impact on the lives of people recovering from a stroke by motivating them to adhere to an at-home exercise routine. Likewise, I hope that this project can contribute to the growing body of research concerning technology in sports. Not only this, but the methods used to develop the robotic coaching system could be replicated in other domains to produce systems capable of motivating people in different scenarios.
Other than the obvious challenges that COVID has thrown up (e.g. not having access to the lab, being unable to run in-person experiments for an extended period of time), one of the biggest challenges has been integrating different technologies to implement a working system. For example, the robotic squash coach uses a racket-mounted sensor to gather data on a player’s swing which is then processed by our algorithms to give appropriate feedback through the Pepper robot.
About 9 years ago I went to an undergraduate open day at Heriot-Watt and saw a demonstration of SoftBank’s humanoid Nao robot. Ever since then, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Here I am, 9 years later, and it has become a reality for me!
Globally, Expo 2020 Dubai provides a showcase of what countries have to offer. Expo 2020 Dubai is the ideal place to showcase all that can be done to contribute to a better world in the future. We are perfectly suited to the theme, Connecting Minds and Creating the Future, of Expo 2020.
Currently, I teach courses in Artificial Intelligence and Intelligent Robotics at Heriot Watt University’s Dubai campus’s School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences. In addition to teaching, I work with students on different research projects that range from Food Computers, Contactless Smart Home systems to Robotic Navigation in airports.
After switching to the academic world from the corporate world, I’ve been able to help the students bridge the gap between what’s taught in a classroom-setting versus what’s done in the actual workplace. As a teacher, it is my goal to promote deeper understanding and stimulate interest in the subject.
In my role as a researcher, I currently focus on the health domain where I work on contactless sensing of vital signs to better support people in smart home environments and when they are interacting with a robot. One of the major goals is user experience and satisfaction in smart spaces, as well as safety and security. Digitally understanding human emotions is also crucial for smart spaces and human-robot interaction research.
The Robotarium is developing innovative solutions to global challenges by being a leader in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence. By taking research from the lab to the marketplace, the facility contributes substantially to society.
Since a young age, I have been intrigued by how machines talk with each other. This led me to make things like machines, devices, robots, software etc. talk with each other and thereby achieve a common goal. The impact of this is much more amplified if the task is to solve some human-related goal. For that to happen it has to be solved through machine understanding of various human nuances that make up interactions.
There is research that was funded by Expo Live 2020 team to look into Human Lip reading from videos to help hard of hearing people interact with people in noisy environments. This was implemented as an intelligent kiosk and the information was generated from fusing the audio and lip movement to generate the corresponding text. Projects like this will help in better understanding human interactions and will make it easier for people inhabiting smart environments. Currently, my focus is to detect in a non-intrusive way to detect the vital signs of people using ubiquitous available devices like wireless routers at home using Wifi waves.
In the past, I have run events for school children to interact with robots like Romo, Lego Mindstorm, and Cozmo using social media platforms like Twitter. I used the robots in many different ways like races, wrestling etc, and I was thrilled to see how such events impacted the children’s perception of human robot interaction.
Thanks very much, I am absolutely delighted to have joined the National Robotarium! This has to be the most exciting role I have taken on in my career, a real opportunity to be part of something that has such significant meaning to society as a whole. And to be a part of it right from the very start is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
The cultural and educational environment where our facility is established, is second-to-none – we are in an area that nurtures and supports the best academic minds in our field and I am very excited to be able to work with and learn from those experts on a daily basis.
Add to all of that, the amazing surroundings, a state-of-the-art building to operate from and a fantastic team to work with makes it the most exciting role I could have wished for.
My background is quite varied which I hope will help me deliver the responsibilities of COO successfully. I started my career in the Royal Navy as a helicopter engineer due to a love and fascination with all things that fly, in particular helicopters appear to defy all logic when it comes to flight!
I served on a number of operational units during my long career as an engineer but also developed an interest in mathematics and computer science, which led me into a number of data-oriented roles during my service. I then left the Navy and took up a number of aircraft service delivery roles within Leonardo, including managing complex multi-million pound support contracts, technical support, management of engineering facilities and front line operational support on military bases.
An interim period with General Electric also gave me great experience with the exploitation of digital tools in the creation of a digital enterprise that focused on maximising product efficiency, engines, avionics etc.
I feel that having been responsible for complex financial contracts, customer-focused services, and digital enterprise development, I have a good deal of experience across the entire end-to-end lifecycle of products, as well as all of the cross-functional support that an enterprise needs to deliver.
I will certainly look to draw on all of that experience to help make the National Robotarium a success!
My focus is going to be customer first and making sure they get an outstanding service and experience from the National Robotarium.
Our vision is to be completely digitally-enabled throughout whilst ensuring our processes are simple and effective. That applies to how we engage outwardly with people and how we manage activity and partnerships through joint projects. It’s vital that we are clear, transparent and trustworthy at all times, ensuring we demonstrate value for money and always deliver quality outcomes on time.
I’ll also be looking to work closely with all of our sponsors and stakeholders with the same values to ensure that we are collaborative at all times. In order to achieve all of this I will be working with the team as we develop our core operating themes and processes.
Underpinning all of this will be a core digital backbone. I’ll be working closely with our digital and IT experts to design and create our National Robotarium digitally enabled enterprise.
I think we are globally significant as we are looking to address problems for the overall good of society, on a global scale. By advancing the research and application of robotics and AI, we can automate the predictable, help keep people safe, and deliver better outcomes for healthcare, manufacturing, labour markets and quality of life.
The UK is renowned for innovation and has a thriving research and development culture. I see the National Robotarium becoming a shining example of these values ensuring that we attract partners and investment from across the globe.
In the Robot Motor Intelligence (RoMI) Lab, we focus on creating motor intelligence in robots with arms and legs. Motor intelligence technology means robots can replace human beings in dangerous or repetitive tasks and could unlock a wide range of concrete industrial applications such as offshore inspection and intervention.
We look for computational principles that help us understand the motor functions in relation to rich sensory data, multi-contact motions and unmodelled environmental dynamics. As head of the lab, my main responsibility is to conceptually design this vision, to inspire and train young scientists in developing their research, and to translate findings into opportunities for industry.
Since a very young age, I have been fascinated by our world and its beautiful complexity. I pursued a degree in mechanical engineering so I could build complex systems, such as human propulsion technology, which led to an interest in building autonomous machines and robots, especially those that move with the agility of living beings.
I learned how to build legged robots, from mechatronics to perception systems, during my PhD in Robotics at the Istituto di Tecnologia and then moved to LAAS-CNRS in Toulouse, France to understand more about numerical optimisation and optimal control.
Since then, I created Crocoddyl, an open-source library for multi-contact optimal control that is having a significant impact in the robotics community, and have had the opportunity to work at the University of Edinburgh, ETH Zurich, the Alan Turing Institute and other research labs all over the world.
The Edinburgh Centre for Robotics has very impressive laboratories, equipment and robots – anyone in this field would agree! I also heard lots of nice stories about Edinburgh from various colleagues and certainly agree, it is a lovely place to live.
In the last few years, we have seen the use of autonomous robots shift from research labs into industrial application and I believe this is the right time to speed up investment in this technology. The National Robotarium will help us boost the deployment of autonomous robot systems into industry, creating a global impact.
The main reason comes from my personal experience. I have been deaf since I was born and, as I grew older, I started imagining solutions to problems I was facing regularly. My dad was working a lot with electronics and that also inspired me to follow the path to become a Robotics Engineer.
I think that robotics is the right field to improve deaf people’s lives as well as the whole disabled community more generally. I’m a firm believer that ultimately, anything that benefits the disabled community can serve the wider society.
I really enjoy Heriot-Watt University’s teaching method, which offers a lot of ‘hands-on’ classes as soon as you start in first year. We still have lectures and tutorials that are more theory-based but we then have practical labs and projects to apply the theory. This is something that makes me more motivated and helps me properly understand what I’m learning.
I just finished my third year, and I can say that the highlight of those past three years is the group project we’ve just finished. The project outline was very wide, giving us a lot of freedom on how we should tackle the problem. I think it was a great way to introduce us to the engineering culture of ‘problem-solving’.
Being Joint President of the Robotics Society is a great experience that is teaching me a lot about myself as well as robotics outside of the academic environment. I co-founded the society in my first year and it has been amazing seeing the society grow and gather more and more people interested in robotics.
We organise workshops, training and multiple events that are open to any students interested in electronics and robotics.
I’ve also recently led the creation of our first society newsletter. The EECE (Electronics, Electrical and Computing Engineering) newsletter includes updates on different student-led groups, researchers, PhD students and even the National Robotarium!
I like to think that robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) will be an extension of our society, as well as a way to help and support people. We are already seeing a growing presence of intelligent assistants and smart home agents, which are already helping people in their lives. In time, I think these systems will be able to assist in doing time-consuming, repetitive tasks, which will enable us to focus more on the things that matter, like work or family.
And, speaking personally within my own circumstances, I believe that RAS will allow minority groups such as the elderly or disabled to integrate more fully into society than they do now.
The National Robotarium is something that robotics students at the University are very excited about and confirms that I made the right decision to study here.
Creating a place that gathers world-class specialist facilities, research labs and expert people from all over the country is a brilliant and powerful idea, which will allow different sectors to work together to generate solutions to the world’s problems.
Robotics engineers involve themselves in various fields of engineering. It is always a big learning curve, sometimes building robots feels like creating a human child. We have knowledge in coding, software development, and designing prototypes, which involves an extensive understanding of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and control systems. We try and implement cutting-edge machine learning and AI algorithms to make the robot more intelligent and more efficient. For me, I’m still learning lots and lots to become a fine-tuned robotics engineer.
Robotics engineers should have skills such as critical thinking and design thinking, programming, active learning, teamwork, safety skills and leadership qualities.
Engineering helps to improve people’s lives in every possible way: economically, and ethically, it helps to improve quality of life, solve societal problems, fight against climate change and more.
At the National Robotarium, we use our engineering skills to build robots that can help people with physically or mentally challenging tasks, and improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
For me, the role of robotics engineer is about combining creativity and logical thinking to come up with novel solutions to complex challenges. My specific role within the team is soft robotics engineer, so most of my time is spent playing with interesting materials and structures to create compliant and often bio-inspired mechanisms that provide adequate sensing or actuation to solve a challenge.
I don’t think there is a limit to the skills required to be an engineer, nor do I think you can have the wrong skills. I am a great collector of hobbies, from textiles to cooking, pottery to music and I feel that with each new skill, I have a better approach to my work as an engineer. There is such a range of different kinds of engineering now that you can always find a use for the most bizarre of skills! That said, I would advise practising patience as it often takes a lot of failure before a solution is found.
During my PhD at the BRL in Bristol, I had many opportunities to interact with the community. What I found most inspiring was when we presented to older generations, or those with disabilities and heard how excited they were about technologies we were creating to tackle the problems they faced in their lives. To see their eyes light up as we presented novel technologies that could aid them was incredible and something that drives me forwards in my work.
“Robotics is an interdisciplinary field and because of that robotics engineer’s role depends on one’s engineering background, be it mechanical, electrical, computer science, sociology or applied physics. For example, a robotics engineer with a degree in Mechanical Engineering would work on the design and modelling of robot mechanics, whereas one with a background in electrical and electronics engineering would develop the robot’s battery management system and its sensors and actuators.”
“I believe that to be a good engineer, you must be able to understand the need for an engineering solution to any given problem. It’s not the “what” and “how” but the “why” that comes first.
Be curious, take inspiration from nature and question EVERYTHING! Analytical thinking is very important as is the ability to communicate effectively in a collaborative environment. It is helpful to have an engineering degree, but it is not always necessary if you have the proper knowledge and practical skills.”
“We live in a world where everything we see has been engineered for us to live a better life, especially in today’s modern digital world, where everything is data-driven. We now have self-driving cars and text-to-speech solutions such as Okay Google, Alexa and Siri which enable us to make calls and play songs using voice commands.
At the National Robotarium, we are developing solutions such as unmanned underwater robots to undertake the inspection of offshore turbines, which is currently being done by deep-sea scuba divers. We are also improving the quality of life for many people doing repetitive tasks in factories by developing solutions for factory automation, which will enable people to safely undertake less repetitive and more skilled tasks side-by-side with robots.