Here is a great Spanish woman, a young engineer from Irun, just 30 years old, who is fulfilling her dream of internship at Mecca for Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There she received her PhD thanks to a scholarship from the La Caixa Foundation and there she was selected by Schmidt’s Fellow of Science, former Google President Eric Schmidt’s programme, to do post-doctoral studies. Juncal Arbelaiz passionately describes his research terms: the intersection between biological and robotic. No more, no less.
I ask. Can you explain your work to us so we can understand it?
Answer. I’m interested in some kind of new robots that are soft robots, soft robots, Which tries to imitate nature, imitating some animals: octopus, snake, creatures like that … The flexibility of these robots has many advantages because they can better adapt to different terrain compared to inanimate robots. But they also have problems: their evolution over time, their dynamics, how they move… all of this is written in complex equations that I’m trying to use to design AI with them. I’m in what we call distributed intelligence: it’s about making sure that the sensors in these robots in their bodies don’t send all their measurements to one brain but to one brain, so that each person can make decisions independently, however, the robot acts as a single entity and does its job in a coordinated fashion. Good. This is distributed intelligence.
s. Can one of these robots really imitate nature?
R was found. We are (laughs). At least we look to nature for inspiration. We may not always have to repeat biology. Nature presents problems that we as systems engineers have yet to fully solve. But a little inspiration, yes.
Nature presents problems that we as systems engineers have yet to fully solve. But a little inspiration, yeah
s. Will machines be able to learn to act?
R was found. Can. The challenge is to design the target and give the machine instructions so that it learns to adapt to its environment. But even people do not agree on optimal behavior. We are on the right track, advancing in AI independence, but we still have a long way to go to get to what humans or many primitive animals are capable of doing on a daily basis.
s. Will these soft robots be useful in surgery?
R was found. It has many applications and one of them is surgery, because when touching tissues from the human body the risk of damage is lower than with a rigid robot.
s. Which ones are at your fingertips?
R was found. I’ve seen a baby octopus that relies on compressed air. There are chewy fish. Its architecture is designed to see how it interacts with a liquid and to exploit that interaction to propel itself forward. There are robots similar to snakes or worms that can move by means of waves in the body. There are all kinds of materials, designs and manufacturing methods, but they are prototypes.
s. Can you tell us an anecdote?
R was found. Yesterday something happened to me (laughs, excited …) A few days ago a news was published about my work and someone from the other end called me: a professor studying the biological part of jellyfish. We realized that the same questions he asks from biology that I ask myself to create robots. The most beautiful projects appear at the intersection of different fields. Maybe we will work together.
s. She looks very happy. Is this possible in another part of the world, for example in Spain?
R was found. Difficult. Maybe I study it yes, but I don’t know what the means. I had never thought of pursuing a scientific career in Spain, this bug got me into it when I first got to MIT. I’ve always loved science and been a good student, but the idea for a Ph.D. was born at MIT. I did my engineering degree and master’s degree in Navarra, but the opportunities I had here in the US never appeared in Spain. Yes really. I must also say that one of the institutions that supported me was Spanish: La Caixa.
s. Is it not possible to be a scientist in Spain?
R was found. I can’t speak for Spain, but the means are not the same. What I liked when I came to MIT is that it is a very strong university in research, with many mediums, with great collaboration between departments and interdisciplinary projects and everyone has a great desire to push and do things. It’s a spirit that struck me a lot.
I hope that we use robots to do the tasks that humans do today that are harmful to them because they have risks
s. And where did his colleagues end up at the university?
R was found. Some in the United States, in England, in Switzerland … We spread a little to different countries, but some remained in Spain.
s. Imagine that 25 years have passed. She will be 55 years old. What will be achieved?
R was found. I hope that we will use robots to do the tasks that humans do today that are harmful to them because they have risks, as in the case of nuclear disasters. Hopefully we can get to a point where we can send robots into a radioactive area and if death, After all, they are things. There is only one economic cost. Or that we use it for repetitive tasks that don’t allow a human to use their 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 do such tasks and that we humans can do better things.
s. What about the lost jobs?
R was found. Jobs will change. Some will disappear, but others will be created. It will take people who know robotics, code, dynamics, more traditional mechanical engineers…and hopefully more interesting jobs.
s. What do you miss in Spain?
R was found. To my family very much. I’m from Iran, and people usually know that because all the Goncales leave from Iran (laughs), and when I can escape to my hometown.
s. Does knowledge come from the cradle?
R was found. My father studied economics on his own and my mother was a writer and then a housewife. The scientific thing does not come from my family, but they instilled in me training, interest and curiosity to continue learning. There are people who always find studying to be torture, but I have always loved learning new things, reading, and still love it. People curious about science.
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