This last weekend, we had a booth at the Robotic Showcase of the EPFL Drone Days.
In the summer, we received 80 girls young who were doing a coding camp on campus for demos at the CHILI Lab.
I also participate to other outreach activities with the NCCR Robotics (Swiss Industry Days) or with the Service for Promoting Sciences – SPS at EPFL by being interviewed by small girls on my job as researcher in robotics.
During this kind of event we could present some learning activities that we developed for children and explain our research goals.
This kind of event are very tiring, people come and go and are often impatient to test. I can occur during the weekend and we can often feel that we could be working on something and it is a waste of time.
But I do think that this kind of event help us as researchers.
First, it shows the face of scientists to the public, they can talk to us. As a scientist you also hear the concerns that people have with some of your work and it is interesting to try to reassure the public and take into account these ethical concerns.
Robotics has had a bad image in the society these past decades, as the 4th industrial revolution announces that many people will loose their jobs.
I personally work on assistive robotics and I want to show the public that robots could be beneficial for their life or for society and that we are researching for what applications they can be an added value.
You also want to show the limits of AI and Robotics system. We sometimes make our work sound fantastic when writing papers (the limitation section being a small paragraph at the end of the paper), but when running experiments / demo in the wild, you see the limits of autonomous systems and you show the public that you still need a human to be around to interact with the robots.
I also helps me to network. I often do user studies and need to find participants for it. I have presented a recruitment sheet during this kind of events and collected contact of people willing to participate to my next experiment.
At least once during the showcase, you will meet this guy (more often a guy but could be a woman) that will want to debate with you. This guy is often affiliated to the field, he knows about cs and robotics, he is retired and thinks that we are now going too far.
I usually take my time with these people, try to show and explain that we are doing to research and testing new things, that there is a lot of room for improvement, and that I appreciate his feedback. A lot of people think like him and it is interesting as a scientist and developer to build your argumentation for this kind of debate.