meet phd candidate sally applin (part 2)

in robots in education by Rethink Robotics

Sally Applin is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kent at Canterbury. This is the second of a two part interview with Sally. Part one is here.

What was your recent paper featuring Baxter about?

For humans and robots to successfully coexist, humans must be able to use and express their creative problem solving skills as well as to make free will choices (e.g. take agency) from options available to them at any given time. Too much automation in combination with too many automated processes, can leave humans without the ability to express themselves and can result in thwarted processes, unhappy humans and challenges to ethical boundaries. AI isn’t in place yet, and no robot can make the right decision in all cases, because they cannot be programmed to consider every agency alternative. Rather than inserting robots into environments simply to complete pre-programmed tasks, we suggest that robots will function most successfully as cooperative partners with humans in environments where they are required. We think Rethink Robotics’ Baxter robot is an excellent example of a cooperative robot.

Baxter the collaborative robot works alongside human co-workers at True Science

What made our Baxter robot such a good fit for your research?

Because humans get to program Baxter and aren’t trying to work around Baxter’s programming, there is an opportunity for a better result for both Baxter and humans. Baxter isn’t making the wrong thing in the wrong way and humans aren’t stuck without a way to help it or are out of a job because they are all suddenly being replaced by the coming “robot army.” I jest a bit about that last point, but people are concerned and people are losing jobs. Unfortunately, the people in upper management of companies who are making decisions about replacing people with algorithms or machines, aren’t taking the idea of agency into consideration as they should.

Baxter includes humans. It incorporates the “yes and” from improvisational theater. The strongest improv scenes are those in which the players commit to what they are given and build upon it. The “yes” along with the “and” (e.g. the new idea). Rethink Robotics does “yes, and” very well. Yes you have robots AND they need people to help them do their work. A win-win.

How do you think automation will affect manufacturing jobs in the short and long term?

We wrote a bit about this in our surveillance paper and in the robot paper as well. In the short term, people are going to be helping automation along. Automation isn’t robust enough to work by itself, though often management in companies think things are working fine until those who are making it work retire or quit. There is an interesting false confidence and belief amongst those creating the automation that it is working well, when it is being held together at times by unseen (and unacknowledged) human hands. This is what we refer to as “covert agency,” which in part addresses some of the questions emerging from the discussion of Woods and Hollnagel (2006) “workarounds.”

I think long term, there is much worry about jobs being taken over by automation and to be realistic, there is a lot to be concerned about. If someone does not have training to go beyond what a robot can replicate in terms of activity, it will be hard for some workers to stay relevant.

However, companies would be foolish to dismiss those workers in favor of automation entirely. Workers have a legacy and an intellectual property that is extremely useful to companies as they transition to automated systems. Furthermore, there are ethics to consider. How much of a profit can a company gain when people have no money to spend on the products produced through its automation? If all manufacturing companies automate, there will be fewer people with money to support their products. When taken to a ridiculous extreme, companies need workers and their wages, to support their own existence. This is a different form of cooperation, but still a required one.

Again Baxter is great here because it wants workers to interact with it and help it along. Baxter is great for the repetition and heavy lifting, but for organizing tasks, setting priority of tasks and in general managing Baxter’s work and output, humans are required. I think this is a good thing because human agency and adaptability is extraordinary. No machine can top it (at the moment).

Tell us what you mean by “Disrupting the Disruption.”

This was my prediction in December 2014 on LinkedIn as a “Big Idea 2015,” “Disrupting the Disruption.” So much has been said lately about “disruptive innovation” and about disrupting industries. For example, Uber, Lyft and companies like them are disrupting the taxi industry (I have an IEEE Technology and Society Magazine piece coming out on this soon). Basically, any time a company comes up with a plan that takes marketshare and business away from an established industry, it is being celebrated by the business community as “disruption.” People think disruptive technologies are goldmines. What they aren’t realizing is that this is a cyclical thing and just as they disrupt, they too, will be disrupted by the next “new new” way to do things. I’m predicting shorter cycles. It took a long time for companies like Uber to come to fruition, and a short time for them to “disrupt” the taxi industry. However, it will come back to them. Someone will come up with something that will disrupt Uber. Probably in a sooner timeframe than it took for Uber to disrupt the taxis. Disruption also leaves a lot of debris in its wake that the disruptors don’t clean up.

You’re defending your Ph.D. dissertation this July…what are your plans once that’s complete?

I am looking for a job!

I can help companies figure out how to connect their products and/or services to people, and I can help companies better understand themselves, and their customers, in order to do this. I have a strong background in ethnography and user experience research and design, product definition and corporate structure and communication and I understand and can identify technology adoption and barriers to usage. I have expertise in identifying underlying and unifying models of branding, behavior and group dynamics, technology adoption and process and service design. I thrive in non-linear environments with diverse interrelated tasks and can easily identify user experience gaps in most analog and digital processes.

I’m seeking a full-time position in a company, corporate research group, start-up, Think Tank, VC company, or collective etc. that is interested in learning about and applying the intersection of social structures, communications, and computing and their associated systems and connection to culture to their business models, products, processes, and/or services. I’d like to apply my talents for synthesis and analysis and to research, corporate strategy, ways of framing, defining and designing brands, products and/or services and robust and holistic user experiences to help companies make great products and/or services that connect to people and their groups.

Ideally, I want to work on projects that do the same kind of ethical good as Baxter: well designed, completely capable technology, that automates where and when automation is required, and includes humans as partners in the process.

Got a lead for Sally? Let her know here.



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