A fusion of human and machine

21.04.2020 - 14:27 | Lina Ehlert

How do robots support people with disabilities? On what ethical basis do robots make decisions? How do you build a robot? These questions will be explored by around 50 children during Digiweek in the Children's Village. Under the motto "Laboratory of the Future", the children will experience robotic assistance systems for disabled people up close and program dance robots.

Armin Köhli zeigt den Kindern, wie sie sich trotz Behinderung Herausforderungen stellen.

Athlete Armin Köhli lost his lower leg in an accident. He showed the children how he has been living since then, and let them try out some prosthetics, wheelchairs and robotic assistance systems. The children played wheelchair basketball, did a slalom wearing prosthetics and overcame obstacles while unsighted.

«Walking with a prosthesis looks easier than it is. But practice makes perfect.»

Jakob – 11 years

"By experiencing disabilities up close, the children learn to deal with them and can develop a relaxed relationship with people with disabilities," explains Armin Köhli. In a subsequent round of talks, the children pester him with the question: How did you lose your feet? Did you have severe pain? What were your thoughts after the accident? Armin is ready to answer questions, and the children follow his story with great interest.

A look into the future

In the subsequent cybathlon workshop, the children come into contact with robotic assistance systems for the first time. So-called exoskeletons, i.e. robotic supports for the body, help to move the arms and legs in case of paralysis or muscle weakness. They can be controlled by remote control, by small muscle impulses or even with thoughts. Up to now, the technology of exoskeletons has not yet reached the point where it could completely replace wheelchairs and prostheses. But in the future this will probably soon be possible.

The children try out the exoskeletons on their own bodies. Initially, the technique goes on strike, but when it works, they are very enthusiastic. The arm, wrapped in the robotic skeleton, moves as if by magic. "You almost feel like a robot," says Jakob.

A sensible approach to technology

The children also discuss ethical questions about robotics. They watch a video in which a boy kicks a robot dog. "Even if the robot doesn't feel anything, I don't think it's okay to kick it. I feel sorry for him," says Mara. The majority of the children agree with her. "The Digiweek is not only to show the children the potential of robots, but also how to use them sensibly. So that the children in the future can deal with technical innovations in a responsible and reflective way," explains Digiweek project manager Lukrecija Kocmanic.

Burning questions from the radio studio

The children also share their experiences in the village radio studio. In the workshop with powerup_radio they produce their own radio show. They research and conduct interviews with each other. They are supported by the pedagogues of powerup_radio. They give the children tips and tricks for moderating. The topics can be chosen by the children themselves. One group talks about football, ice hockey and monster trucks. Another group talks about their time in the children's village and about robotics.

The children prepare for their show.

The children are particularly interested in the ethical issues associated with robots. Who should a self-propelled car protect first in an accident? The driver or the people walking on the road? The children conducted a survey for the radio show and came to the conclusion that most people would protect other people's lives first. Such elementary questions are currently being asked by the programmers of large technology companies. The children are also worried about their future career opportunities. Will robots steal their jobs? "No," says contestant Joel. "I think there will be more jobs that require computer science and engineering. Robots will have to be programmed, and that requires people."

Young tinkerers

To gain an insight into computer science and technology, the children can tinker and program themselves in the "Laboratory of the Future". Supported by teachers from mint&pepper they build dancing robots. Each child receives a set of components: lights, speakers, batteries, wheels and plates. Instructor Kevin Schneider explains what a circuit board does and how to use the soldering iron. The children heat the boards, pour solder over them and then assemble the components. A metallic smell spreads through the classroom, occasionally clouds of smoke rise from the tables. The children are extremely motivated, some of them even have a great deal of previous knowledge about robots and how to build them.

A great deal of sensitivity is required for soldering.

After soldering the robots are decorated and the dance choreography is programmed. In the computer program, the children choose a song and determine the robot's movements. This is all about trying out and being creative.

«Robotics is an exciting topic that will become increasingly important in the future. We show children robotics in a playful way so that they have fun doing it. And maybe someone will decide later to study robotics.»

Kevin Schneider – Course instructor robotics
The children program when the robot turns, slaloms or flashes.

The dance partners of the future

The highlight of the week is the big final presentation at the end. Now the children can show off their acquired knowledge. Relatives and friends of the participating children gather in the gym. The children have rehearsed a choreography to the song "Happy" by Pharell Williams. Excitedly they stand on the stage. The song begins and they start their dance giggling. Next to each child it flashes and whirrs. The children are not alone on stage, they are accompanied by their futuristic dance partners: the robots!

Human and machine dance together on the final evening.

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