“I never considered being a scientist in Spain” | Technology
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Here is a plethoric Spanish woman, a young engineer from Irun who, at just 30 years old, is fulfilling her dream of training at the mecca of science, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She got her doctorate there thanks to a scholarship from the La Caixa Foundation and there she has been chosen by the Schmidt Science Fellow, the program of former Google president Eric Schmidt, to do her postdoctoral studies. Juncal Arbelaiz passionately describes the terms of her research: the intersection between the biological and the robotic. No more no less.
Ask. Can you explain your work to us so that we understand it?
Response. I am interested in a type of new robots that are soft robots, soft robots, that try to imitate nature, imitate some animals: an octopus, a snake, beings like that… The flexibility of these robots has many advantages because they can adapt better to different terrains compared to rigid robots. But they also have problems: their evolution over time, their dynamics, how they move… all of this is written in complicated equations that I try to use to design artificial intelligence with them. I am in what we call distributed intelligence: it is about ensuring that the sensors that these robots have in their bodies do not send all their measurements to a single brain but to several, that each one can make decisions independently and that, even so, the robot acts as a single entity and does it well. That is distributed intelligence.
P. Can one of those robots really mimic nature?
R. We’re on it (laughs). At least we look to nature for inspiration. We may not always have to replicate biology. Nature presents problems that we as systems engineers have not yet fully resolved. But a little inspiration, yes.
Nature presents problems that we as systems engineers have not yet fully resolved. But a little inspiration, yeah
P. Will machines be able to learn to behave?
R. Maybe. The challenge is to design the objective and give the machine the guidelines so that it learns to adapt to its environment. But even people do not agree on the optimal behavior. We are on the right track, advancing in the autonomy of artificial intelligence, but we still have a long way to go to reach what a human or many more primitive animals manage to do on a daily basis.
P. Will those soft robots be useful for surgery?
R. They have many applications and one of them is surgery, because when touching a tissue of the human body there is less risk of damage than with a rigid robot.
P. Which ones are within your reach?
R. I have seen a small octopus based on pneumatics and air. There are rubber fish. Its geometry is designed to see how it interacts with the fluid and exploit that interaction to propel itself forward. There are robots similar to snakes or worms that manage to move by waves in the body. There are all kinds of materials, designs and manufacturing methods, but they are prototypes.
P. Can you tell us an anecdote?
R. Yesterday something happened to me (laughs, excited…) A few days ago a news item about my work was published and someone from the other extreme contacted me: a professor who studies the biological part of jellyfish. We realized that the questions that he asks from biology are the same ones that I ask myself to create robots. The most beautiful projects arise at the intersection between different fields. Maybe we’ll work together.
P. She looks very happy. Would this be possible in another part of the world, for example in Spain?
R. It’s hard. Maybe study it yes, but I don’t know with what means. I have never considered doing a scientific career in Spain, the bug entered me when I arrived at MIT for the first time. I always liked science and was a good student, but the idea of doing a Ph.D. was born at MIT. I did my engineering degree and master’s degree in Navarra, but the opportunities that have arisen for me here in the US have never arisen in Spain. Yes indeed. I must also say that one of the foundations that has supported me is Spanish: la Caixa.
P. Isn’t it possible to be a scientist in Spain?
R. I cannot speak of Spain, but the means are not the same. What I liked when I arrived at MIT was that it is a very strong university in research, with many means, with great collaboration between departments, multidisciplinary projects and everyone with a great desire to push and do things. It is a spirit that infected me a lot.
I hope we use robots to do tasks that humans do today and that are bad for them because they carry risk
P. And where did his university classmates end up?
R. Some are in the US, in England, in Switzerland… we spread out a bit in various countries, but some stayed in Spain.
P. Imagine that 25 years have passed. You will be 55. What will have been achieved?
R. I hope that we will use robots to do tasks that humans do today and that are bad for them because they carry risk, like in a nuclear disaster. Hopefully we’ll get to a point where we can send robots into a radioactive zone and if die, After all, they are objects. There is only one economic cost. Or that we use them in repetitive tasks that do not allow a human to use his creativity, which is the good thing about being human. I hope that we can create robots with the level of intelligence necessary to be able to take on such tasks and that we humans can do better things.
P. And the lost jobs?
R. Jobs will change. Some will disappear, but others will be created. It will take people who know robotics, codes, dynamics, more traditional mechanical engineers… Hopefully, the jobs will be more interesting.
P. What do you miss about Spain?
R. To my family a lot. I’m from Irún, people usually know it because all the Juncales leave from Irún (laughs), and when I can I escape to my town.
P. Does science come from the cradle?
R. My father studied Economics on his own and my mother was a clerk and then a housewife. The scientific thing does not come from my family, but they instilled in me the training, the interest, the curiosity to continue learning. There are people who always found studying to be torture, but I always liked learning new things, reading, and I still like it. Curious people are into science.
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