Q&A with Noel Sharkey

Materials World magazine
30 Apr 2017

Kathryn Allen speaks to Noel Sharkey about his career, his work promoting STEM and the involvement of women in engineering. 

Did you always want to work in robotics? 

I fell in love with robotics when I was a very young child in the 1950s because of sci-fi on radio, TV and the movies. I loved The Day the Earth Stood Still and Lost in Space. By the age of 20 it was psychology that grabbed me, from Psychiatric Nurse to PhD and running a psychology lab at Stanford University, USA. I also worked on artificial intelligence (AI) in the computer science department at Yale University. But by the late 1980s, it was robotics all the way.

You have moved across various academic disciplines, from engineering to philosophy to linguistics – why such a breadth of study? 

This is for two main reasons. The first is that I started out with questions about what is a mind and after finding no answers in psychology, I started to look seriously for answers in other disciplines. The second is that I have a low boredom threshold and have always loved learning hard stuff. Moving to new disciplines and publishing new research in them was what excited me most.

What does your day-to-day work involve? 

I don’t build or program robots any more. Since my hair and beard turned pure white I have been most concerned about the impact that the fast upcoming field of robotics and AI will have on our society and our humanity. So I have spent the last ten years writing about the ethical application of robotics in many areas such as childcare, medicine and surgery, policing, transport, sex, care of the elderly and the military use of robotics. For these purposes, I run two non-governmental organisations – the International Committee of Robot Arms Control and the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. 

As well as having an established academic career in robotics, you have been a judge on every Robot Wars series so far – how have the materials involved in robotics evolved?

The biggest evolution in Robot Wars, in the old show, was between series two and series three. It was an unbelievable acceleration in fighting robots. Suddenly there were flippers, spinners and self-righting mechanisms. The first series of the 2016 reboot (and series two, which has been filmed but not aired yet) built on these developments but with massively more power. The robots are heavier now and most are using hardox armour, which is an incredibly tough material. Also, developments in batteries (lithium polymers) and much more efficient motors generate a scary amount of power. The bar spinners seem unstoppable unless they break down – but I am quite sure that Robot Wars’ imagineers will find a way to stop them eventually.

Tell me about your current research into the ethical issues in robotics and emerging technologies. 

I am chair elect of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control founded in 2009 to spread the word about autonomous robot weapons. These are robot tanks, ships, submarines, and jet fighters that can go out and find their own targets and kill them without human supervision. Since 2013 we have been making great progress at the United Nations with a coalition of more than 60 other NGOs to prohibit them with a new international treaty.

The other NGO that I co-direct with Aimee van Wynsberghe is the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, which is housed at the Hague Institute for Global Justice, the Netherlands. We are helping to assist with and drive new international policy and regulation for the growing robotics revolution in a way that does not stifle innovation. A lot of new robotics technology is being developed at present from autonomous cars to robot carers. Police use is growing and there are massive shifts in the service industry. We have got to be prepared before they are all around us.

Given the uncertainty of Brexit, what can the industry do to promote STEM research? 

It is impossible to know how Brexit will impact since we don’t yet have any idea how it will unfold – components could be much more expensive and exports may be harder, but who can say yet? One thing is for sure, the demand for people qualified in STEM is going to keep rising. There is currently a burgeoning threat of mass technological unemployment as automation and robotics comes of age. But STEM jobs are going to blossom in the foreseeable future, so the industry will automatically promote to avoid skill shortages.

STEM education really needs to be accompanied by skill flexibility and creativity to power innovation, so I would champion a change in our education system to guard against specialising too early. We need to ensure that our future scientists and engineers have an opportunity to work in arts and humanities subjects. This is why I prefer the term STEAM, [where the 'A' stands for the arts].

With increasing university fees, do you think vocational courses in engineering will become an alternative to higher education? 

It is hard to say how much of a barrier increasing fees would be. Young people have got used to the idea of paying back the loans, although I worry about the impact on the poorer members of our community. Being rich might mean that you get a better education, but it does not necessarily mean that you are brighter. We need more scholarships to ensure that fine young minds do not get wasted.

There is nothing wrong with doing vocational courses and it has nothing to do with fees. University academic work does not suit everyone and there are plenty of young people with a more practical intelligence who can actually make things that work. It is important to think through whether continuing to do academic work is something that inspires you. Remember that doing a vocational course does not prevent you from going to university later if you feel like it.

You spoke at the IET Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards 2016 as part of the ‘9% is not enough’ campaign – what do you think prevents young women from entering
a career in engineering?  

It is really difficult to tell as there have been several suggestions that are not backed up by significant evidence. I have some ideas, but they are equally speculative. There is plenty of talk but not enough action.

What can be done to break down these barriers and close the gender gap in engineering?

If we are to reduce the gender gap we really need to fund a large-scale research project to find out what the most discouraging factors are. We need to have iterative questionnaires that narrow in on specific problems and we need face-to-face interviews both with women who went into engineering and those who were interested but decided not to take that route. We also need to check out the attitudes of male engineers and how they see the 'invasion' of women. There is so much that needs to be done.

When we have the results from this research we need to persuade employers to act on them. We need to look at the perceptions of potential female engineers and find out if they are well founded or if they can be changed.

We really need to break down whatever barriers exist as soon as possible. It is unhealthy to have a single sex dominate such an important aspect of our lives in the 21st Century. We are beginning to see the emergence of gender bias in our technology and robotics. We are already seeing gender and ethnic group biases emerge in artificial intelligence systems that use big data to make decisions about people's lives. This is too important to just leave to men to fix, despite good intentions.

What advice would you give to young women considering a career in STEM? 

Study hard and stay with it. Do not be discouraged by a largely male environment. Remember that your creative and co-operative skills will make a massive difference to the technical revolution in our society. We need you. 

Do you think the lack of women in the industry puts those women who have chosen a career in engineering at a disadvantage? 

I would phrase this differently and say that if there were far more women in engineering there would be greater power to make the push to ensure balance in the most senior positions. At present there is a highly polished and well maintained glass ceiling. 

You have spoken of the importance of finding female role models within engineering – who do you think is an inspiring female engineer? 

There are so many that I know, it is difficult and perhaps a little tactless to pick out particular individuals. One would certainly be my fellow Robot Wars judge Lucy Rogers who leads by example rather than running off at the mouth. Others would be our Robot Wars best female role models Dominique Anderson and Debs Cooke. Debs, along with combat roboteer Sarah Malyan, has set up the Female Roboteer Collective Facebook page to advise women with an interest in robotics – I am delighted to have been given honorary membership. Then there is the amazing ten-year-old April Prince who made such a big splash after her Robot Wars appearances. She has worked tirelessly to encourage girls to build robots.

Finally, let us not forget the five young women finalists at the IET’s Woman Engineer of the Year Awards.  They are truly inspirational role models. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention my wonderful co-director at the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, Aimee van Wynsberge, who is truly inspirational.

Noel Sharkey is Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and Professor of Public Engagement at the University of Sheffield, UK. He is also co-director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, Chair of the International Committee of Robot Arms Control and Head Judge on TV series Robot Wars.