Women Designing the Future

Written by: Tracey Regan,
Wendy Roberts, CEO and founder of Five Elements Robotics, speaking at the Murray Center for Women in Technology Conference, Women Designing the Future. Next to her is one of the company's robots, 5e NannyBot.

Women engineers, computer scientists, entrepreneurs and social critics are making their mark on the booming robotics and smart device sectors, where, along with their technical prowess, they bring a keen talent for integrating technology into individual lives and communities.

At the recent NJIT conference, “Women Designing the Future: Thinking About Things that Think-- Robots, Smart Devices, Pervasive Computing,” nearly two dozen pioneering women from student coders to tech company CEOs discussed their experiences in the industry and their view of what’s to come in homes, offices and factories.

More than 300 students, faculty and guests, including some middle schoolers and their teachers and parents, listened, rapt, to their first-person accounts of inspiration and perseverance.

Wendy Roberts, the CEO of Five Elements Robotics, was joined at the podium by one of her company’s recent offerings, 5e NannyBot, a mobile robot with a built-in camera that provides video and audio feed of its environment and can follow children as they move around. Among the company’s other “personal service” robots Five Elements makes is Budgee, a lightweight cart that can lug up to 50 pounds of a person’s belongings as they walk around or drive alone to another location, directed by a smart phone.

Panelist Ksenia Vereshchaga co-founded TeleRetail, an urban mobility platform and self-driving navigation software to guide courier robots, for example. Her co-panelist, Linda Ziemba, CEO and founder of the company Drones Go Home, develops sensing technology that detects the presence of unmanned aerial systems.

Several speakers presented therapeutic such as robotic exoskeletons to assist people with neurological disorders or spinal injuries and digital games designed to enhance learning and promote social progress. Yvette Wohn, an assistant professor of information systems and app developer who runs NJIT’s Social Interaction Lab, joined Susanna Pollack, producer of the annual Games for Change Festival, the largest gaming event in New York, among others, on a panel focused on digital games for social good.

Karen Nolan, a senior research scientist at the Kessler Foundation and a professor at Rutgers University who specializes in biomechanics and motor rehabilitation, described the exoskeletons she develops for people “with impaired systems where muscles are working against each other.”

“To date, these robots have been made for adults and they need to be shrunk down for children for use in training and to impact outcomes,” she noted. "With our exoskeletons, we want to maximize the amount they can walk in their first exposures."

Several biomedical engineering graduate students at NJIT, including Kiran Karunakaran, who received her Ph.D. last year, are also developing assistive devices for the upper and lower body that aim to provide more natural, intuitive and flexible ambulation by basing stride – the length and height of steps – on movement intention signaled by hands and fingers, and by employing admittance control, a robotic control paradigm in which the motion of the robot is controlled by the magnitude and direction of the forced applied by the user’s arm.

"Replicating the evolution of computers from room-sized corporate number crunchers to typewriter-sized PCs to smartphones and wearables—and, soon, ubiquitous “smart dust”—robotics is becoming a personal, even intimate part of our daily lives. And women have played a crucial role in these in these developments from the very beginning,” notes Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, director of the Murray Center for Women in Technology, and co-organizer of the conference with Judith Sheft, associate vice president for technology and enterprise development at NJIT.

“Women are well represented today in cutting-edge technologies,” Roberts remarked. “Discrimination is sadly still there, but the way we manage it is to make the future different for females.”

Looking forward, Alice DiSanto, director of marketing for Sharp Electronics’ robotics division, predicts the day will come when robots have so permeated the workplace that companies will employ a chief of robotics to optimize and smooth their integration. The position will require both hard-core engineering skills, the ability to incorporate user experience and lastly, the capacity to “truly listen and look at things holistically” – ample opportunity, she adds, “for women to leverage their skills.”

“What does this all mean for jobs? People are really worried about this,” observed Julia Kirby, senior editor at Harvard University Press and coauthor of the book, “Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines.”

While she acknowledged coming displacements in some sectors, she argued that the real aim of robotic devices and artificial intelligence should be to augment what humans do and better tap their talents.

Sheft noted, “As lifelong learners, we need to constantly refresh our skill sets.”

The conference was co-sponsored by the New Jersey Innovation Institute (NJII), NJIT’s CyberCorps® Scholarship for Service grant , the Albert Dorman Honors College, the Technology & Society Forum and IEEE Women in Engineering (Princeton chapter).