Whatever the question, the answer is more robots: Vijay Kumar

  • Pankti Mehta, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Nov 20, 2014 21:38 IST

A remote-controlled drone flies across the room, but it can do much more than fly. It can map the room, help with farming, deliver shipments, even play music, as roboticist Vijay Kumar, professor at the University of Pennsylvania illustrates.

Called ‘the father of the drone’ and in Mumbai to speak at the TEDxGateway event, Kumar spoke to HT Education about drones, robotics and what India needs to do to encourage student innovation.

There are obvious risks with robots replacing human jobs…
The idea is not to have robots because they may be cheaper than humans; it is to make robots do jobs that humans cannot, or in most cases, will not do.

I’m convinced that whatever the question, the answer is we don’t have enough robots. For instance, if our underwater robots had the maturity of on-ground ones, we would have found that missing Malaysian Airlines flight in 24 hours. Currently, we know more about outer space than the reaches of our own planet, because we don’t have enough robots.

If the 1700s saw the Industrial Revolution, and the 2000s the Internet Revolution, I’m certain that the next phase is the Industrial Internet Revolution, harnessing the massive potential of automated machines, which can change the way we live.

How do you think India’s engineers can partake in this revolution?
India has really made its mark in technology. The software industry that India is so well known for and the robotics industry that India is not well known for, are not that far apart. As I see it, the problem is that we don’t have companies like Google or Amazon who are spearheading the revolution. Instead, we have companies like Infosys, who are great at meeting current needs, but are not leaders in building path-breaking technology.

Moreover, civil authorities recently cracked down on drones, shutting India out of a whole revolution. Authorities, industry and universities need to be at the centre of this revolution.

What do you think Indian institutes can do to increase the level of student innovation?
Importantly, we need to teach students to see what will be, not what is. I studied at IIT-Kanpur, which has had a profound influence on my work. When I was at IIT, though, the institutes were actively training students to meet demands that were not coming from India, to send engineers like myself abroad. We were taught to think at IIT, but I’m not sure that’s happening today. I work with several bright Indian-origin students at the university, but now, very few of them come from IIT backgrounds.

Can Indian institutes encourage robotics even with their investment handicap?
Absolutely. That’s the myth about robotics – in actuality, you can buy most of the raw material off-the-shelves, at a very low cost. Robots are things you can literally make in your garage – it’s all about using software intelligently.

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