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Meet Estonia: A Robotically Transformative Nation

Text by Sven Paulus / Life in Estonia, photos by Sven Paulus, Angela Rääk, Biorobotics Centre at TUT

U-CAT in an aquarium

Just as Skype revolutionized the way we communicate, and TransferWise found a way to break worn patterns in the financial world, Estonia is about to make a transforming difference in the dynamic field of robotics too. Besides the country being a Mecca for data and tech-driven startups, more and more Estonians, in addition to excelling in code writing and software development, are thrusting their hands deep into the wiring and metal of robots.

Imagine a vacuum-cleaner-sized, yellow ‘turtle’ diving elegantly down hundreds of metres to probe ship wrecks, thus gathering valuable data for archaeologists and maybe even finding lost treasures buried somewhere deep under the sea. But this intelligent ‘turtle’ is actually a robot. Equipped with a camera and a searchlight, the relatively cheap and highly manoeuvrable U-CAT (Underwater Curious Archaeology Turtle) locomotion principle is similar to that of the sea turtles of the natural world. Its uniqueness is enhanced by creating the momentum needed for forward movement not by propellers, which would disturb the vision in silty waters, but by using flippers.

The creation of this technology is especially good news for scientists, since the relatively shallow Baltic Sea, where the robot was successfully tested, is notorious as the graveyard of untold numbers of ships. Having its source of inspiration in biology as it does, U-CAT was created by scientists at the Biorobotics Centre at Tallinn University of Technology (TUT). The leader of the centre, professor Maarja Kruusmaa, says that trying to be the best in Estonian robotics is not an ambitious enough goal and encourages people to think at least on the European Union scale.

This is nicely illustrated by another success story which combines science, fashion, data and technology. Kruusmaa, who defines good technology as that which does not disturb humans, also co-founded and worked as R&D director for the company Fits.me, developing a virtual fitting room which would help online shoppers understand what clothes suit and fit them before they go on to physically buy the items. By becoming more familiar with their clients, this also helps retail companies to reduce the number of product returns. In the summer of 2015, Fits.me made a breakthrough when the enterprise was acquired by the Japanese company Rakuten, which is ranked among the top three e-commerce companies in the world.

One part of the Fits.me virtual fitting room is its shape-shifting robot mannequin, co-developed with the University of Tartu, where Kruusmaa’s colleague and co-author professor Alvo Aabloo has been taking various phenomena to extremes. Notably, Aabloo is a member of the research consortium which built the Mars house prototype, the, Self-deployable Habitat for Extreme Environments or SHEE. This 6-metre long and 2.4-metre wide house opens up into sections in less than two minutes and fits on a truck trailer. Besides being able to withstand inhospitable and literally out-of-this-world conditions, it can also serve as a base for catastrophe relief on earth itself. With interior space of 50 cubic meters, it can accommodate and sustain a two-person crew for up to two weeks.

Robots competition

Towards Smart Machines

Currently, SHEE functions as a test-bed for terrestrial simulations of extreme environments. However, it is also possible to deploy the habitat in space-analogue environments or under laboratory conditions. ‘In 2017, SHEE is due to be tested as a platform at the European Space Agency,’ states Aabloo, who in addition to this mind-blowing science project also currently researches artificial muscles, stimuli-responsive smart polymer composite materials and their possible applications in lab-on chip devices and in robotics.

Any potential hall of fame of Estonian robotics is yet to be built, but some of the current projects already enable us to glimpse a transformed future in many areas. For example, Milrem is developing an unmanned ground vehicle for military purposes that can carry up to 750 kg of payload. ‘Estonia has some very good drone builders and Smartpost is creating rather complex package automats,’ claims Aabloo. He also mentions that many other projects in the area don’t generate as much publicity due to the fact that robotics is mostly applications research-based, plus some B2B solutions by their nature tend not to get much public attention.

Both Kruusmaa and Aabloo, as well as other experts in the local robotics realm, are keeping an eye on Starship Technologies – an Estonian-rooted startup which builds package delivery robots. This neatly-designed six-wheeled robot drives autonomously, up to six km per hour, saves money, is kind to the environment and has already been tested in more than 40 European cities.

’Constructing these robots and finding solutions to all technical issues is very far from trivial and demands a huge effort in terms of science and technology,’ acknowledges Kruusmaa. Yet she is far from seeing the Estonia of the future as a country where one can meet robots walking on the streets, speaking the local language, and waving to or otherwise interacting with humans. Rather, she envisions more and more smart technology, which has already permeated our daily lives as of now, helping us in further innumerable areas therefore making more time for leisure activities.

The sky, or rather space, is emphatically not the limit when it’s about engineering state-of-art technology. The highly noted Estonian student satellite project ESTCube has already given birth to a company called Krakul. This enterprise specializes in robotics, and the electronic modules they have built operate in various mechanisms, starting from the Threod Systems’ drones to the Starship delivery bots.

The aforementioned flagship, Starship Technologies, is a company co-founded by Ahti Heinla, one of the original creators of Skype and (file-sharing platform) KaZaA, and just might give a hint of how logistics and home delivery will look in a few years. Just recently their robot made its first meal delivery in London and garnered plenty of approval for driving around in Washington D.C. and Redwood City, which, of course, raises the question concerning the possibly bleak future of current human delivery workers.

However, if robots really are taking over our jobs, then maybe there are more routes this could go down than just a negative scenario? What happens if you create an environment where most of the kids are familiar with technology and use it in a creative way?

’They’ are really ‘Us’

’Robots have already taken over the world. This started as early as in the 1990s, but some people are still having this stereotypical Transformers-like Hollywood view on robots,’ believes Heilo Altin. He defines a robot as ‘a system that has sensors, a processor and motor’ according to which robots can be seen everywhere around us, even in a coffee machine. This is reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan’s idea that the user is the content of any situation, whether it’s driving a car, wearing clothes or watching a show.

Altin is PhD student supervised by Aabloo at University of Tartu and one of the leading forces behind the ever-growing Estonian school-robotics program initiated by Aabloo back in the noughties. As of now the community unites more than 200 educational institutions and according to Altin, Estonia is among the top countries if one were to count available school robots per student, which translates into 60 per cent of Estonian schools being equipped with robots of some kind.

The country is also well-known throughout the world for its traditional song festivals, where more than a hundred thousand people gather at the Lauluväljak (the Song Festival Grounds) to jointly sing their hearts out. The song festival is a meeting of the emotions and the spirits. What happens, however, if a festival was created for the purpose of helping brains and raw metal meet? This is pretty much the story of another outstanding cooperation between Aabloo and Kruusmaa: Robotex, born in 2001, which has since grown to become Europe’s biggest robotics competition.

This December the event hosted 912 robots from 20 countries and had around 16 000 visitors, ranging in age from the youngest participant at four to the oldest at 68 years old! Robotex 2016 marketing manager Janika Leoste likens the event to the song festival and sees new trends as well: the age of the participants is decreasing, while the number of represented countries is increasing, indicating an ever-growing interest in the field.

‘The Robotex model will be implemented next year in several countries, while we are preparing for the biggest robotics competition ever,’ recounts Leoste.

So, is the key to success perhaps keeping an open mind and benefiting from a supportive environment? ‘Robotics is 80 per cent of creativity,’ reveals Altin. He urges the use of it as simple tool, as an artist uses a brush. But the robotics enthusiast also reminds us that this area demands interdisciplinary approach where mathematics, physics, mechanics and programming are combined into one animated machine. ‘Packing info into the brain is not practical in a world overflowing with data,’ he says. The skill of analysing what is right and what is wrong is much more important,’ Altin goes on.

Luckily, Altin notes that a growing number of parents see the need for keeping up with digital and technological literacy, especially when it comes to their kids. ‘It is crucial that children also be the creators of the new technology, not only the consumers,’ he emphasizes. And this type of grooming of the growing generation might just be what will keep alive his vision of the future Estonia as the new Mecca for robotics.

How Robots Can Still Let Us Be Humans

Interview with Kristjan Port (columnist and director of Tallinn University School of Natural Sciences and Health)

What are Estonia’s advantages, in the light of global developments in robotics?

Estonia’s diverse culture, complex history and at the same time compactness as a country have made us pretty pragmatic. We value education, especially in technology. Our song festivals confirm that, despite our internal contradictions, we are as a nation able to consolidate for a common goal at any time, and for our size the ‘bang’ we make for our buck is usually louder than average, especially in research, developing ICT or even sports.

None of these fields are easy, and the scope for Skype-type world-class successes among the other happy stories in the background does not seem to be once-only chance. It may be argued that the repetition of the same, even in the field of robotics has been proved to be just as feasible. Human beings are complex, and this is also repeated in the experiments creating a robot in parallel with them. Therefore, the game of testing ideas with robots could become our strength.

People often fear that robots will take over in the near future. How do we find a balance between dystopia and utopia?

Being human is the insurmountable advantage that we have. We do not want to be a tireless, infallible and universally-able – to be like machines. Woe to those who forget that and try the opposite (as history shows – ed.). This is the true path leading to dystopia. As long as we maintain empathy, perceive beauty, appreciate the natural world, and continue to laugh and play, no robot can ever understand us or replace any other person in the world.

Keeping these values intact while still living as a human among robots is however likely to make us go through inevitable ups and downs, even crises. Utopia is when we think that somebody else has to do it instead of ourselves. A far greater threat than that of the robots is the concentration of robots as property into the hands of just a few, thus giving them power and capabilities. This can happen only if we focus solely on productivity and forget about what we really want out of life.

Today’s youth often seem to spend their life in an increasingly digital-technological world. Is there anything they should bear in mind while looking towards higher education?

The current history of education teaches us that the most popular specialities can create overpopulation, low wages and befuddlement in those issues that weren’t studied so much. Therefore, it makes sense that some humanitarian specialties are abandoned today in many parts of the world (partly due to reasonably excessive conservatism) to the benefit of ICT and engineering instead. It is also likely that we are going to soon need experts who can combine knowledge and skills from technology, human sciences and healthcare. While building machines, human problems are still increasingly being highlighted. Amongst these is a completely new set of moral dilemmas and perplexing issues that may find their resolutions only with a less technology-driven worldview.

* This article was supported by the European Union Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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