TechTalks – Simplicity is Profound
The road to TechTatva 2015 is being laid, brick by yellow brick, with a series of TechTalks by eminent doctors and professors. On 21st September, Dr. Prahlad Vadekkepat gave a discourse on Frugal Innovation and Robotics. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
When the CEO of Microsoft presented Cortana in San Francisco last Wednesday, he instructed the virtual assistant to, “Show me my most at-risk opportunities.” What Cortana could grasp was, “show me to buy milk at this opportunity.” He tried another time and failed, yet again. By now, the nervous chatter in the crowd gave way to guffaws, and the speaker looked on at the screen and implored Cortana, “Oh, come on!” To err wasn’t just human anymore.
However, there was something curious in the way Dr. Prahlad Vadekkepat handled imperfect hardware. He showed a humanoid robot prototype on screen that was designed to kick a football. The bot did kick the ball, but fell backwards in the process. He did not get impatient with the robot. He just smiled at the audience and said, “He fell back… but we love this guy.” It’s not something you expect a scientist to say about a malfunctioning robot; it’s what you’d normally hear a father saying at the first day of his kid’s soccer practice. This is because, at his very core, Dr. Prahlad never saw failure as a weakness, nor did he see emotion as a downfall to science.
He believed that human emotion, human error, and the resulting human judgement is not a glitch in modern robotics, but the next stage in its evolution.
The AC Seminar Hall was rapt in concentration as he began his discussion on robotics. He visited the workshops of RoboManipal and Mars Rover Manipal last evening and lauded their dedication to work even on a Sunday night.
He showed the audience different clips and images from around the globe on how robotics is growing in its vastness and complexity. A crowd favorite was a video of the robot soccer world cup where these machines played entire games without human intervention. “Machine” here is a gross understatement, for these robots were actually named after Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry, and were fiercely cheered by the spectators.
Another one that caught the eye was the “Robot Baby Seal”, which is designed to hug people. Sounds too simple? This baby seal was shown hugging the elderly and diseased, and there was a marked improvement in their health. Now you have your very own portable and “huggable” Patch Adams.
The crux of the evening wasn’t just advancement in robotics, but the idea of “emotional engineering”. “I have no interest in the moon and stars, but in helping the poor around me – the idea of innovation shouldn’t be to make the rich live with comfort, but to aid the needy to live with decency. There are women in India who actually make a living carrying human excreta, and that’s hardly the sign of an advanced nation”, said Dr. Prahlad, tear in one eye and a twinkle in the other. Basically, invention is not just grounded in necessity but in empathy as well. It is only when you feel strongly about a cause, when you put yourself in ragged shoes, that you start treating a problem statement as a void that you must fill. And that is when a drive to invent turns into a calling to innovate. That’s where the magic happens.
He felt that the core drawback of Indian Education and Worldwide Technology is that we try to “over engineer”. Let’s look at a simple contraption that was invented to support carrying loads on the head, which folds out into a wheel barrel of sorts. This is not something that is too hard to make, and therein lies the genius. Any farmer with his basic tools can make it, and it can help daily wage earners by the thousands. In comparison, there could be a complex robot that can involve pages of calculations. Our system would grade the latter higher than the former. That, he felt, was a key failing in our education – the idea of complexity equalling ingenuity.
“Innovation is the skill of finding simple solutions that people have missed all along.”
Dr. Prahlad recognized the value of emotion in robotics. He understood that when a child stumbles on a toy on the ground, he gets back up and tries once more. He might fall again, but he’ll keep trying. Soon, he’ll learn to avoid the obstacle, so he doesn’t fall anymore. Our mistakes are what makes us human, and that’s anything but a weakness. Emotions may lead to mistakes, and mistakes turn into lessons, which ultimately give birth to discretion. It is this simple thing that sets apart a stealth drone that can bomb one civilian to kill a terrorist faction and a pilot, who chooses not to. If perfection is the goal of innovation, discretion can never be programmed and we will be doomed to an age when all a robot should do is put caps on toothpaste tubes.
As he left the stage amidst thunderous applause, his friend and our director, Dr. Vinod V Thomas took stage and offered his own inputs to the topic by echoing and adding to Dr. Prahlad’s ideas about our education system.
There was a Q&A session where students pitched in their ideas, which were happily answered. Some students sought guidance in the field of humanoid robotics, which the veteran scientist was more than willing to offer.
The passionate scientist left an audience that would think once (or twice or thrice) before inventing for the sake of complexity, and think, resolutely, a fourth time before wasting a single drop of water.