Living easily with robots

Living easily with robots

An Indo-Japan colloquium emphasises how technological relationships would be able to secure a symbiotic relationship with AI, says Angela Paljor

The Japanese have not only been using robots for disaster management and rescue, like they did in the tsunami and earthquake-ravaged Fukushima in 2011, they are upgrading them to sense and rescue survivors, overcoming the odds of debris. A couple of months ago, Japanese scientists developed a snake-like robot that stretches 26 ft in length and is covered in short brush hairs.

Slithery and serpentine, it can find its way through the most challenging terrain and upheaval and is reportedly the first in the world that can lift its front tip off the ground to climb and navigate obstacles. It can even squeeze itself through slim crevices and rubble, to look for signs of life with a sensor camera mounted on its snout. It can even warn authorities about possible cave-in zones. The plastic brush hair makes it move forward. The new robot can be deployed for practical rescue efforts within three years. Meanwhile, Japanese underwater ROVs are already in use for bridge inspection and underwater recovery.

While Japan has surged ahead with artificial intelligence with humanoid talking robots that reportedly can acknowledge “emotions” to Transformer-like foldable versions, its application in everyday life seems far-fetched in India. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has even voiced his hopes to stage a so-called Robot Olympics, to run alongside the Tokyo Games, in summer 2020.

Coinciding with his visit to India, a joint dialogue was held in the capital to discuss the wide applicability of AI in the Indian context. Dr Tairo Nomura from Saitama University elaborated on the proven role of robots in disaster management and reaffirmed the need to segregate the various aspects of robotics – who will use it and how will he/she use it? Thus, he felt, there was an urgent need to include technology in mass education. “It is here that we can put AI to work. While AI stores all the data base, the application will solely depend on the humans. To create such an education system, it becomes essential to have a qualitative approach towards education. Activities become the source of understanding any subject,” he said.

However, Nomura feared that the diversity of language in India would be a challenge as it becomes really difficult to translate the developments in technology in various languages, known as the second class digizen issue – gap in terms of digital and technological awareness due to language barriers. If one is able to sort this issue, just the way Japan has been able to, India will not have to hover around technological giants and become one itself, he felt.

Policy-making is also an essential part of  creating a symbiotic relationship with the robot, AI and humans. Rather than postponing crucial agenda like climate change, nuclear powers and epidemics, regulatory bodies should be classified into various sections. K Vijay Raghavan, head of National Centre for Biological Sciences said it was essential that both the local and the scientific community were equally a part of the decision-making process. Only then would the nation be able to find viable solutions to various problems.

K Vijay Raghavan, head of National Centre for Biological Sciences, argued for technology in dealing with complex diseases. He cited the example of the practical application of research in Huntington’s disease (HD), also known as Huntington’s chorea, an inherited disorder that results in the death of brain cells.

“Huntingtin is a 350-kilodalton protein of unknown function that is mutated in HD, a neuro-degenerative disorder. The mutant protein is presumed to acquire a toxic gain of function that is detrimental to striatal neurons in the brain. However, loss of a beneficial activity of wild-type Huntingtin may also cause the death of striatal neurons. Biotechnology demonstrates that wild-type Huntingtin up-regulates transcription of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a pro-survival factor produced by cortical neurons that are necessary for the survival of striatal neurons in the brain. It shows that this beneficial activity of Huntingtin is lost when the protein mutates, resulting in decreased production of cortical BDNF. This leads to insufficient neurotrophic support for striatal neurons, which then die. Restoring wild-type Huntingtin activity and increasing BDNF production may be therapeutic approaches for treating HD.”

New technology means scientists can now do that. The drug, Ionis-HTTRx, is a gene-silencing drug, a molecule small enough to enter the cell and intercept the genetic instructions for the protein before it can be made. It is like taking out the messenger and you can stop the mutant protein from forming. Getting the drug to the brain is difficult. It has to be injected with a four-inch needle into the liquid that surrounds the spine. From there, it travels up to the brain and into the brain cells, most of which are tucked away in hard-to-reach places. Without technology-aided treatment, human lives would not get better.

Raghavan and Nomura were optimistic that the India-Japan technological relationships would be able to secure a symbiotic relationship with robot, AI and humans to succeed in today’s complex and diverse world.



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