Robots for Everyone: The Changing Face of Robotics
When you think about the field of robotics and the people who build and program robots, what image comes to mind?
Is it this?
Or something like this?
Or maybe even these famous guys:
That’s because for decades, these images have been icons for computer science, robotics, and engineering disciplines. But despite the fact that the majority of people working in engineering fields are still male, today’s roboticist is increasingly looking a bit more like this:
The culture of robotics has changed over the last decade and it’s continuing to change.
It is no longer just scientists (in a suit and tie) building large complex machines for corporations. It’s people building robots that can perform everyday activities. It’s students building robots to solve future problems. Robots are now more complicated and powerful, but the barrier to entry has been drastically reduced because the hardware and skills are available and accessible to more people.
Robotics has historically been a very expensive and technically challenging industry. For decades, robots were created in specialized laboratories in corporations or government facilities. The roboticists were typically scientists with PhDs in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science because the electronics and programming were so complex. In addition to their expensive college educations, they then needed specialized training in hardware and software because most of it was proprietary to a particular company.
These requirements, after many years, resulted in the robotics workforce that is the basis for the persistent stereotype of an engineer. The jobs were much more likely to be filled by those who could afford the time and money for the education and training and those who had connections to the companies and industries. The others, largely women and minorities, became the under-represented groups in robotics. Even later, with advancements in technology, robotics equipment began to become less expensive and more available to the public, but was still largely inaccessible to the overall complexity.
Let's fast-forward to the present.
Open-source software and hardware designs are making robotics inexpensive and more accessible than ever. To put it simply, open-source is when code, designs, plans, and chipsets are free and open to the public. Even considering licensing restrictions, these designs can be used for education or for other companies to make an improved or less-expensive version. For the public, this means that software becomes nearly free and hardware becomes affordable to be purchased by individuals, libraries and schools.
You can currently purchase an Arduino Uno or a Raspberry Pi Zero for around $10. You can buy a full Raspberry Pi, which is essentially a computer with an operating system, for $25. Many libraries now have 3-D printers and free classes in coding and robotics that are free to the public.
The rise of Makerspaces has also helped to make robotics more accessible to people of all ages and educational backgrounds. They are eliminating the need for specialized labs or facilities to create robots. These are spaces with tools, hardware, and machinery for prototyping ideas and making new projects. Volunteers typically dedicate their time and supplies to teach members of their community how to code or create electronics and robotics. Libraries, schools, and even corporations are now creating their own "makerspaces" to educate their employees and outside groups.
In addition to expense and access limitations to equipment and education, another long-standing barrier in bringing robotics to the masses has been the complexity of programming languages. Until very recently, writing code for a robot meant learning highly specialized software or "classic" programming languages, such as C and C++. Some of these older languages can be intimidating to beginners who lack Computer Science education and make robotics nearly impossible for teaching young children.
The removal of many of the challenges and barriers to entry has resulted in a diverse community of thousands of brand new roboticists and developers that are challenging the stereotypes. These people range from children to retired adults and include all genders, ethnicities, and educational backgrounds. They’re forming makerspaces and communities, teaching other curious people, and introducing a new generation of children to coding and robotics at an early age. If you’re interested in becoming one of the new faces of robotics, you can start by finding a local library or makerspace. If you want diversity and inclusion in robotics to continue to grow, go out and support events and classes in your local community!