Meet the Mind Revolutionizing UK's Robotics: Stewart Miller's Vision

Created: March 29, 2024
Meet the Mind Revolutionizing UK's Robotics: Stewart Miller's Vision

In this episode of the CTRL+Listen Podcast, we sit down with Stewart Miller, the visionary CEO behind the National Robotarium, to explore the future of robotics and AI in the UK and beyond. Discover how Stewart's leadership is propelling the robotics industry into a new era, from pioneering innovations to fostering global collaborations that aim to position the UK at the forefront of technological advancement.

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Learn more at the National Robotarium here

 - Learn more about Stewart Miller's work here


    James: Hi everyone, this is James from the Controllers and podcast brought by Octopart. I'm here with my cohost, Joseph Passmore, and today we have a very exciting guest for you as Stuart Miller, CEO of the National Robotarium over in Scotland. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It's great to have you here.

    Stuart: It's a pleasure to be here, James.

    James: So just before we get started, I kind of just want you to go over a little bit of what the organization is, what as goals are. I know you do some really exciting stuff though.

    Stuart: Yeah, so we've been established now for just about 18 months, so we're fairly new, but we were set up to meet the needs of the, the robotics and robotics and AI marketplace here in the uk. And those take a few different forms. So everything from supporting existing businesses that are looking to adopt new robotics in the future, to helping new startup businesses that are developing new robotic solutions and wanting to get those to market to promoting and assisting with research projects. So we look at the next wave of, of robotics and also to reach out to the community at large in the UK to help people think about robotics as a career choice, but also to help them understand robotics overall so that they can, you know, as, as robotics comes into their lives over the coming years, they do that in an informed way. And ultimately we try and blend all of those things together so that we see the benefits cross-cutting from one to the other, which is where the, the real exciting opportunities arise when we're able to connect a company with a problem to a startup with a solution, for example.

    James:That's great. I think that's really important work. It's one of those things that as we progress becomes unavoidable dealing with robotics in some capacity in your professional life. We've had some guests on the show that staff from early learning with robotics to teach really children. So they're, they're used to and accustomed to it as they go through school, which I think is fantastic.

    Stuart: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that's really important. I think if you see a future where robotics and robots and humans are working side by side in all kinds of different ways at home, in the workplace when we're socializing, then we're going to need a generation of people who are comfortable with that and understand it properly and can operate in that economy, can make the most of it for themselves, but also can make the most of it for everyone else. So getting everyone tuned into that as early as we can and helping them to understand where the opportunities lie is really, really one of the main aims of what we do.

    James: Great.

    Joseph: What role do you see robotics and automation playing in the future of the uk?

    Stuart: I think it's massive, not just for the UK but, but globally. I think I, I took this role on just over two years ago and one of my motivations for taking it on was as a lifelong engineer and someone who's been interested in technology all that time, I could see that robotics was coming to a point where it was, it was going to be really meaningful now. So the technology was maturing, the capability was, was getting to the point where it was going to be really useful. And that's partly because of the underlying technology in terms of enough computing power and, and you know, having batteries that are powerful enough and last long enough. But also the, the, the intersection of robotics and AI bringing much more autonomous robotics, much more capable robotics I could see was going to lead over the next decade to a world where, as I said before, we're all going to have robots in our lives one way or the other. Whether we, we use them at home to clean the floors, clean the windows, cut the grass, take the dog for a walk, empty the dishwasher, whatever it is that we don't like doing right now or we're using, we're utilizing them in the workplace to make our businesses more effective and efficient and more competitive. They're going to be part of our lives going forward. And I firmly believe that that's the path that we're, we're going down. So I think it's a really, really important technology and I think it's one that we will all embrace over the coming years.

    James: Do you think there's sort of a general misconception from a lot of people of what a robot actually is and how you define a robot?

    Stuart: Yeah, I think, I think probably most people haven't really thought too much about it and if they were asked it would be a humanoid megatron, it would be something like that because that's what they've been fed through science fiction and, and films and you know, it is that sci-fi view of, of robotics. And that actually ironically is, is actually the one of the really exciting areas of robotics right now. You know, there are companies all around the world developing humanoid robots, not at least of which Tesla, but you know, a quick Google search will find at least 20 of them in countries all dotted all around the world, all the different stages of development. But I think there is still work to be done to help everyone understand those other types of robots that are going to be in their lives. Everything from autonomous vehicles to autonomous drones, but also just simple things like, you know, getting your delivery roof delivered in the future and by a robot and not by someone on a bike. All of that is coming and, and I think the real well not challenge an equal major challenge and opportunities for everyone to, to make sense of that and understand how, you know, how their lives are going to change. But yeah, I think most people would just think it was a humanoid robot, I think. And I think those of us who are involved in robotics know there's a, an awful lot more to than that and that's part of the education process.

    Joseph: I saw that your stunning campus is built on Harriet Wat University's Edinburgh campus.

    Stuart: Yeah.

    Joseph You are working in partnership with the university?

    Stuart: Yes, we are more than in partnership. We're an integrated part of the university, but we are a slightly complicated organization. So the, the funding to establish the building and equip it with the robotics that we currently have and all, you know, build the office furniture, et cetera, that came through a government initiative that started five or six years ago, which is known as a city deal. So it was looking at turning Edinburgh and its surrounding areas into an area that was focused on data-driven innovation. So there are similar centers to the, the national Robotarium dotted around Edinburgh, ones focusing on medicine, others on agriculture, et cetera. So there's six in total, but we, we are basically delivered through Harriet what university we're an integrated part of that. Our two sponsoring universities are the Ed University of Edinburgh and Hart Watt University. So we work really closely with their academics and their research groups. But because we're the national rotator for the uk, we also reach out to all other universities across the whole of the UK and have a network of connections into, into those that are active in robotics. So it's quite a, it is quite an interesting aspect to my job, which is working both locally and nationally at the same time. 'cause inevitably wherever we were located in the uk, and I'm sure this is the case for any other innovation centers dotted around the world, even you tend to get drawn into the local ecosystem quite easily. And, and, but at the same time we have a brief to try and have an impact right across all of the uk

    James:That's really exciting. So I know you have a, a couple of different types of labs that specialize in different areas. What, maybe we can go through some of those, but starting what are the robotics and autonomous systems labs and what, what are they focusing on?

    Stuart: So exactly what it says on the tin in the main, the work going on in there is looking at autonomous systems, sensing their own environment, making their own decisions and carrying out tasks in that environment. That includes everything from using quaded to wheel to tracks to drones. We've all, we've got an autonomous terrain vehicle for looking at a applications in agriculture and forestry, which is quite big here in Scotland. We've got an autonomous surface vehicle for going out into the North Sea and looking at wind turbine infrastructure underwater using submarine ro submarine robots. We have drone capability, we've also got a number of different quaded types. We're just about to have our first BIP arrive and we've got a number of tracked and wheeled vehicles as well. And really what the reason we have all of these and all the other robots that we have is to make it easy for people to, to access them. So if an organization's looking at, for example, deploying a wheeled robot in a, in their business, but they are not quite sure where to start or how to try out their particular application, then rather than having to find the money to buy one, train their staff up, do all the project in house, then we give them a real kickstart by giving them access. Hopefully we've got in stock access to the kinds of platforms where they can at least start to experiment. And alongside that, the, the team of engineers that we have here, we've got 17 engineers on the staff, can work with them to make that journey easier and, and the learning curve less steep in terms of getting involved in robotics. And that's a big chunk of what we do, which is to de-risk and accelerate the adoption of, of robotics. But to go back to your question, the, the autonomous systems lab is very much around that. We also co-located there cobots. So we have a number of different cobot arms, again for exactly the same reason, to allow businesses to rapidly assess the application of cobot robots into their, their manufacturing processes or their, their packing processes or whatever it's that they're looking at. So as I say, a big part of what we do is have on tap and have already invested in the, the hardware as well as the team of engineers with the expertise to help get these projects off the ground and and running quickly.

    James: That's awesome. So the importance in in robotics education when working with these businesses is both familiarity, so to encourage people to adopt and safety. Could you talk a little bit more about the safety?

    Stuart: Yeah, so you're right. It it's a, it starts with helping them understand robotics from the perspective of their business. So we listen very carefully to companies about what they would, what their problems are before we really start talking about whether robotics is the right, but assuming that robotics is the right answer. Then as I've said before, we try and help 'em rapidly prototype and get their hands dirty with robotics so that they go up that learning curve really quickly. And in amongst that there's safety, but there's also other elements that we try and help 'em to understand. So everything from realizing what's involved with maintaining and operating a robot for a long period of time to do with, for example, the stocks or batteries you might want to have or whether you have need to have docking stations, very simple things like that all the way through to thinking about the impact on the rest of your workforce and how the robots work safely. And amongst that, that mix of humans and robotics side by side. Two simple things like cybersecurity. I say it's simple, it's not simple in reality, but it's a simple thing to, to recognize and it, it is quite a surprising how few companies when they start talking about robotics really understand that it's not just about, you know, the thing with four wheels that's going to do the job that they want autonomously. It actually involves an awful lot more infrastructure. But the good news is that as they understand that it doesn't, still doesn't put them off the adoption. It actually, I think in a lot of cases gives 'em confidence that what they're buying is, or what they're creating is a robust solution that's not going to, you know, come into operation and after two weeks they put it in the corner and switch it off because they haven't really got it through.

    James: And then in regards to those, the other labs that you have operating the human robot interaction labs, what are they looking at exactly in that relationship?

    Stuart: Oh, it's a fascinating area. So again, exactly what it says on the tin, looking at that relationship between humans and robots, everything from a psychology and the ethics through to the practicalities of the importance of gesturing the importance of natural language, the uncanny valley and whether people are accepting of robots. But in the main, the work that's going on there is, is in the research domain rather more than in the adoption domain. There is some adoption but it's predominantly research. And that research is very much around healthcare and social care. So the use of robotics for all kinds of things in terms of replicating the symptoms of Parkinson's disease in, in robots in order to be able to come up with better diagnostic tools through to physiotherapy tools, using live data feeds to help physiotherapists adjust and tailor their, their treatments for the patients. Therefore getting patients outta physiotherapy and back into normal life sooner rather than later through to what is a really fascinating area which is around social care, particularly for an elderly population and people who maybe are isolated and and dependent on living at home where they're today maybe dependent on home visits once or twice a day to make sure that they're secure and safe and fed now in the future, looking at people like that, living alongside their own robot, giving them 24 hour seven day a week protection and support and what does that robot look like and you know, how many systems need to be combined into one solution or is it something that maybe has some IOT sensors in the, in the home coupled with the robot. All those things are being explored right now.

    James: That's really exciting. I think that's, that's all stuff that people don't even take into account robotics, is that a whole side of it that you guys are really looking so deep into?

    Stuart: Yeah, yeah. And it is important to get that right because the last thing that robotics as a general purpose, general use technology needs is for people to think that it's not doing the job that they want or is unreliable or is unsafe. Yeah. 'cause that'll set it back. And I think the benefits that'll come from the adoption and use of robotics, particularly in things like healthcare and social care and education and all the things that we as a civilization want to get right, the benefits are there from robotics if we get it right. And it'd be a real shame if we trip at the first hurdle by putting things out there that don't work properly or haven't been properly thought through. So that that basic research that's going on is really important. And how that then blends through into the adoption by the companies and by the people who want to actually use these technologies is, is a big part of what we try and do. Like I said right at the start, those connections between those, those areas I think is, is where the magic happens.

    Joseph: And is that mainly engineers working in that section or is there a range of disciplines?

    Stuart: There's a range of disciplines. So you mentioned before our, our relationship with Harry Watt University, we're very much linked into the business school and also to the school of social sciences, bringing that kind of expertise into the mix as well. And the, you know, the team here is not just engineers. We've got project managers making sure that we deliver the projects with our customers on time and and to cost and quality. But we've also got a team of business development people who are looking to work very closely with the company. So really understand what it is they're trying to achieve. I'm a great believer that it's important to understand the underlying business need rather than just responding to the request. You know, I'd like a robot to do x, well y do you need a robot to do x? What, what brought you to that conclusion of what was the underlying problem? 'cause it could be that the robot's not really gonna give you what you want. On the other hand, it might be a better robot solution than the one you pre was the right answer. So I think that's where we add an awful lot of value, just helping everyone take one step back and, and properly understand what the, what the problem is.

    James: And then I know there's one more lab type, which is a precision laser applications lab, which again sounds like it is what it says on the tin, but what exactly does that area focus on?

    Stuart: So precision lasers, the, so a number of different things. So har watts universities got a long history in, in lasers and precision lasers in particular. So that's carrying on in this building. But now we're building in the intersection with robotics. So that happens in two directions. So one of the things about precision lasers is it's almost an art in terms of setting up some of the more complex systems, both in terms of research but also in terms of manufacturing. So trying to bring robots into the mix to standardize that and make it more repeatable is something that we're looking at. And there's a partnership with a large user of industrial lasers that that's involved with that right now. And then the flip side of that is looking at the use of LA laser precision lasers to create new components for robotics. And that takes the form of new surface finishes that can be created through etching and, but also creating new jointing approaches where two materials that are difficult normally to join together could be joined together using precision lasers. So things like metal and glass for example.

    James: Fascinating.

    Joseph: Are you able to discuss any of your featured research or are there any favorite projects of yours?

    Stuart: Yeah, I mean most of it's out there in the public domain in fact, it's all out there in the public domain. So all the research that's been being done is, is funded by the UK government and so it's, it's freely available to everyone. But I think the, the ones I would highlight are, again, back in that health and social care space. So there's work going on to, to help people to recover from, from operations and procedures more quickly. There's a lot of focus on stroke recovery. So one of the startup companies that we have here, but we haven't talked about yet. So we have, we have a number of resident, what we call resident companies who are startups and we support them both virtually and physically. So right now we've got, I think it's seven companies resident with us working every day here in the national robotarium, employing about 50 people across those companies. And we've got another five or six joining us in the next month. So we'll be about a dozen or so very soon. But one of those is focused in on a device to help people recover from stroke to help them regain the control and the muscles in their hand. And alongside that there's research work going on in the same area looking at stroke recovery. And another company that's resident with us is called Touch lab, which is looking at creating the sense of touch for robots. So basically robotic, robotic skin. Wow. And they've recently publicized the work that they've been doing in the Finn NHS equipping a robot with their technology to be hands-on with patients in a way that robots haven't been trusted to do before because of the sensitivity of the touch and the ability to carry out the tasks that normally would be done by a healthcare professional with many years of training, but isn't really using that skill because it's repetitive our movements or it's supporting someone while they're, while they're doing some exercises now you could use the robot to do that while that skill professional's off doing something more useful. And that's what they were, they were looking at on a, during a three month trial.

    James: Fascinating. This is something that some people have a pretty clear understanding of and others won't. So I wanted to ask it, how crucial is the partnership with AI to actually achieve autonomy in robotics?

    Stuart: Very, so you can achieve, achieve autonomy in robotics in a number of different ways. And it's, there has been autonom, there have been autonomous robots for a long time and if anyone's got a Roomba at home, you've got an autonomous robot, but it's not an artificial intelligence autonomous robot. Yeah. So, you know, the long answer is you can, you can achieve autonomy in a number of different ways. This, the state of the art and what's being developed now relies a lot on artificial intelligence in a number of different ways. So it might be artificial intelligence that's sitting behind the sensor technology in order to make sense of what's going on, but it may also be artificial intelligence that's learning about the environment, the robot's moving around in and improving its ability to move around in that environment all the time. So as we move to more human-like robots, then the role of artificial intelligence is going to increase dramatically, particularly natural speech and being able to communicate with a robot just the way that we are communicating right now, that's where it needs to be. I was talking with someone this morning about this very subject in terms of bringing through robots even in, in industrial applications that you don't need to go on a two week training course to be able to operate. You can take it out the box, switch it on and start talking to it, asking it to give you information on its status, but more importantly, giving it commands and, and it getting on and doing the job that's, you know, that's well within reach right now. Those that are playing with natural language processing will tell you that, you know, recognizing people's speech isn't difficult anymore, recognizing different accents, different languages even that is not difficult. The bit that's really been developed in the research labs now is how to have robots work in a mixed environment where there may be a conversation going on that it's not involved in and how does it recognize that things that it's picking up are not for it, it's for someone else in the room. And also how does it then contextualize some of the commands that it's being given so that it's more intelligent in, in that way. But I think also as we get to more bipedal humanoid robots, then artificial intelligence plays a big role in what they're going to be do doing, particularly in the training of the robots. You know, the, the ability to have a robot mimic a task that someone else is doing as a quick and easy way for it to learn the task that it's supposed to, to then carry out repeatedly will require decent artificial intelligence to be able to do that. And we're seeing that demonstrated by quite a number of the developers of humanoid robots right now.

    James: It's exciting. What effects do you think the global component supply chain will have on robotics, manufacturing and development?

    Stuart: That's a very good question. 'cause I think it, it, it can take a number of different forms. A colleague of mine once said that the people who made the money in the gold rush in America were not the miners, they were the speed providers. But I think there's a lot of truth in that. So there are certain key components for robotics going forward all the way from, you know, decent motors to decent batteries to, to processing power that say that's maybe adapted and, and targeted at robotic applications rather than just general purpose and some sensing technologies as well. So those kind of components are gonna be very important going forward. They're gonna be required in massive scale. So those that can produce the world's best of those at the right price are going to do very well for themselves. Themselves, where they're produced and who controls that supply is going to be very important. Just like in history, it's been important for all kinds of different technologies. I remember reading a few years ago about the paraffin wars that happened and not quite sure when it happened. I think it was 18 somethings might even have been earlier than that, but paraffin was the most important commodity and we see it all the time. So I'm not suggesting we're gonna have any wars, but what I'm suggesting is that that supply chain is gonna be hugely important. However, I think something it's a little bit different now from maybe only a few years ago is a recognition of two elements for the supply chain. One is in terms of the carbon footprint and the net zero ambitions we all have across the globe. That in turn has an impact on where you source your components from. And then there's, there's the, the importance of making sure that you have a local manufacturing capability if you want to both reduce that carbon footprint but also give yourself some resilience in your supply chain. So I think we may find that with those two things in play, that component supply will be more localized than maybe it has in the past in a, in a truly global economy.

    Joseph: Do you see those new European legislations that regard ethical supply chains playing a factor as well?

    Stuart: Yes, I think so. Yes. I mean I think that goes for, for almost anything. So I think, you know, there's a number of things that robotics as it matures and comes out becomes a bigger and bigger part of the economy will just have to fit in with so that kind of thing. Yeah, I think that will just follow naturally.

    James: And before we wrap things up, are there any trends that you've seen recently in robotics are exciting that you are personally excited about?

    Stuart: It's all pretty exciting I think. I think the destination is the, the most exciting thing. I very often try and help people understand that the future looks like a mixed future of humans and robots coexisting and working side by side and it's one which brings with it all kinds of benefits that we mentioned before, but we have to do it responsibly and we have to think about it before it arrives. So I think the important thing is, is to wake everyone up to what will inevitably come along. I think we we're currently underestimating the, the impact domestically, and by that I mean in terms of consumer goods and what will there and as more and more robotic based devices become available to make our lives easier at home, that in turn has the potential to be the biggest market by far. If you look at all the other things that gets sold around the world and could in turn have an impact on traditional markets, I think the, the introduction of humanoid robots is probably the most exciting and interesting part of what's going to happen over the next few years as we start to look at a world where, you know, in theory some of the things that we've automated now might take a step towards the way they used to be when we weren't able to automate and we were using a lot of manpower. We might go to a lot of robot power instead because it gives a lot of flexibility and has the potential actually to co to contribute to reducing carbon footprint et cetera by reducing, for example, imagine a, a large logistics work warehouse at the moment that's currently full of lots of dedicated conveyor belts, et cetera, being replaced by a much smaller space that is full of robots that can move around and do, do the work instead. Those robots, if it's fully robotized, could be working in the dark, might not need as much if any heating, but the building itself could be a lot smaller as well. So I think we could see a lot of knock on impacts as this technology comes along and that's gonna be very exciting. But I think the most exciting bit is not the technology, the most exciting bit is what does it mean for us humans as we start to use and adopt these robotics devices inter lives.

    James: Yeah, I imagine the society's gonna look pretty different one generation from now.

    Stuart: Yes. Yeah, I think, I think we're gonna start to see the impact in the next five years or so, definitely in the next 10. And if we were having this conversation in 20 years time, it would all be done and dusted. I think if we've learned anything over the last few decades, it's the speed of change that comes with these technologies. You know, we've seen new technologies like CD discs come and go within 20 years years. This kind of technology not only has the ability to to come as fast as that and it won't go, it'll stay, but it also has the ability to make those profound changes. I'm always staggered by when I remind myself that the first smartphone, well not the first smartphone, but the iPhone was lodged in two eight.

    James: Yeah, it's crazy to think about that.

    Stuart: 16 years ago and I think we all got bored with the upgrades and, and had all decided that our smartphones were perfectly capable four or five years ago. So within a decade we went from first smartphone to saturated smartphone 10 years and look at what they can do and all the things that then grew off the back of that in terms of things like, you know, portable Google maps and all that kind of stuff and app stores and, and a whole economy based around the apps that you can now download on your phone. Robotics is not dissimilar to that, particularly as we introduce humanoid robotics and the way that that could then work alongside and be part of a workforce and be involved in our social life and our home life in a way that will be profoundly transformational.

    James: It's, if you look at a graph of technological advancement rates throughout history, it, it goes pretty steadily like this but then it reaches a certain point in the last century where it just goes basically straight up. Yeah. And I, I think it just keeps escalating steeper and steeper in the last few decades. The rate of advancement is absolutely insane.

    Stuart: Yeah and I think a number of observers have have noted that that's because those technologies have got the software component to them in a way that previous technologies didn't and it's a lot quicker and easier to develop the software capability than it is to develop new hardware. So even if you just look at the rate of, you know, we all know about ME'S law, et cetera, but the, the rate of development in terms of microprocessing and and memory capability has been really impressive. But that's nothing compared to how quickly we could develop software. Yeah, and I think again, going back to your point about robots with ai, once we have the robotic platforms that can walk and talk, then it'll be the artificial intelligence that's on board that will be rapidly advancing what we can use those for. And that's why I say it's not going to be that different from the iPhone.

    James: Right. For sure. Well thank you so much for, for coming on. Before we finish, I just wanted to ask if anyone wants to check out the organization and or contact you about your services, what's the best place to do that?

    Stuart: You can find us on LinkedIn or X just searching for National Robotarium. We've got a website. Again, just go on your favorite search engine and search for national rotator and you'll find us and we've got YouTube channel as well. Again, just type in National Robotarium and you'll find us there as well. So all those different routes.

    James:Fantastic. Again, yeah, thank you so much. This has been absolutely fascinating. Really great discussion.

    Joseph: Great.

    Stuart: Good. Great to meet you both and it's been a pleasure to, to talk robotics.

    James: Thank you. And for everyone listening at home, just tune in next week. We will have another episode for you.

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