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Think robotics is just for guys? These sisters beg to disagree!

Asad Ali | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

Think robotics is a concept for grad students and scientists only? Aditi and Deepti Prasad beg to differ. They're a pair of young innovators doing their best to harness the power of robotics in order to make school education much more interactive and immersive. The two sisters head Robotix LS, a company they founded in 2009 with a mission to inspire the next generation of innovators and creators.

Robotix creates robotics & coding education programmes for children so they can imbibe skills such as problem solving, creative thinking, innovation, critical & analytical thinking, communication and collaboration.

"Our goal is to empower children with 21st century skills, which are important in today's society, such as computational thinking and expression, creative and critical thinking, collaboration and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) skills," say Aditi.

In an interview with Catch, Aditi talks about her company's objective, perception about the robotics industry and suspicion around Artificial Intelligence (AI) - whether all this 'alien tech' is as bad as it's made out to be.

What exactly does Robotix aim to do?

We teach robotics and coding, as part of in-school programmes, to children in K-12 schools in multiple cities. Second, we have after-school programs and summer camps.

Third, we run an annual robotics competition called the Indian Robotix League.

Fourth, we have launched an educational Robot, PHIRO for the global market - a complete Make In India product, right from ideation to manufacturing. Phiro has been featured on Intel's America's Greatest Makers. Lastly, and something that is very close to our hearts, are our social initiatives. We believe that every child should have access to robotics education, so we offer free robotics and coding programs to underprivileged children.

Technology has always been seen as male dominated. Robotics, more so...

As women, my sister and I are very passionate about bridging the gender gap in STEM and we were inspired by the Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code movements in the US. We launched Indian Girls Code to help bridge the gender gap for girls in STEM at an all girl's orphanage where we teach coding and robotics.

We've also partnered with FORD Motor Co. India to teach robotics to underprivileged boys and girls. These kids are extremely smart and their thirst to learn allows them to grasp concepts easily as well as apply these skills in the real world.

Where does robotics as a discipline stand in India vis-a-vis other countries?

There is a lot of research on robotics and educational robotic products for kids coming from countries like U.S.A, Japan, Korea, Austria, Spain etc. Organizations like Code.org are inspiring millions of kids worldwide to code - developing 21st century skills.

There is an increasing trend in India, where children are learning through practical hands-on experiences. Phiro, our educational robot that teaches kids aged 4 to 18 how to code, is a complete Make in India product and is aiming to put India on the global map of educational robots.

There's been so much talk about AI overriding human knowledge and perhaps even causing harm to humans. How much of this scenario can turn true?

Humans have created new technology for hundreds of years, from the airplane to the computer. We've also figured out a way to make these safe and beneficial to humans and I presume with AI things will be no different.

As Mark Zuckerberg said in a recent interview, "I think that along the way, we will also figure out how to make it safe. The dialogue today kind of reminds me of someone in the 1800s sitting around and saying: one day we might have planes and they may crash. Nonetheless, people developed planes first and then took care of flight safety. If people were focused on safety first, no one would ever have built a plane. This fearful thinking might be standing in the way of real progress."

Do you feel that suspicion around AI is misplaced because it's a foreign concept or is this a case that actually deserves more consideration?

Anything new does arouse suspicion. A classic example, like Mark Zuckerberg says, is that of aeroplanes. When aircraft were invented, people were scared but technology later ensured it was alright in terms of safety and security. So suspicions might exist but I think it's a wave that the technology will ride over soon.

There have been studies about how robots are going to take away jobs in a major way from people. What's the best way to avoid a situation like that or should we adapt to a new world order instead?

Robotics as a field is going to enhance old jobs and create new ones. Like how the industrial revolution changed the job market, creating new types of jobs, robotics will change the landscape too. When computers were discovered, entirely new industries soon sprung up - from video games to printers and whatnot. It helped industries like animation as well.

The jobs which are totally manual - requiring just physical effort to build something - might come down. But what will take its place are jobs around the new robotics industry - jobs that we're probably not even aware of now as we speak! And companies and policies will again subsequently adapt to this change.

You're into developing robots that are educational for children. Do you forsee a future where the concept of human teachers becomes redundant?

Robots can be great educational & learning tools to equip skills in children. But robotics will only enhance the job of a teacher making the learning process innovative, fun and creative. It can't replace the human presence completely. Supposing a child falls asleep in a class being taught by a robot or if a child wants to go out of the classroom, would the robot be programmed to stop it? That's not feasible. Which is why the presence of a human teacher will remain. It needs to.

What kind of regulations do you feel are necessary to control the AI space?

Like how airspace is regulated by law, I am sure the necessary regulatory bodies will consider and safeguard interests to regulate some framework around AI.

First published: 3 July 2016, 8:52 IST
Asad Ali @asadali1989

Asad Ali is another cattle class journalist trying to cover Current affairs and Culture when he isn't busy not saving the world.