Reflections on the Nigerian Robotics Scene

On Thursday the 20th of December 2012, I saw in the Science section of the Nigerian Guardian an article on how a group of medical researchers from the University of Pittsburgh succeeded in teaching a woman to control a robotic arm using only thoughts via her brain. Further details can be found here. This news of course had me excited as one can imagine the plethora of applications that such a successful breakthrough holds for robotics as a whole and for prosthetics specifically. In a text sent to my brother, I stated that the article read like magic mentioning Arthur C Clarke’s third law. One of course knows that by now the field of thought-controlled computing is no more new. Beautiful work by the likes of Ariel Garten for years has seen this field grow and now merging its possibilities with that of robotics brings mankind to the place where the idealistic  intentions of prosthetics( to replace a lost limb with a device or system  that functions as closely as possible to it) are becoming realities.

The question that one tends to ask after reading an article like this is “when will Nigeria or even Africa come to such places in robotics research and development?” As far as I know no ongoing African research project in robotics or even prosthetics draws as close in magnitude, significance and reach to this project. The African robotics scene is at best nascent. I was privileged recently to be present at a meeting held in the Department of Medical Rehabilitation of a University that prides itself as being one of Nigeria’s finest. The reason for the meeting was to discuss the development of a robotic arm as a prosthetic replacement for those patients who had lost limbs. It was a fruitful meeting that brimmed with possibilities. I however know that comparing  w hat we discussed that day to projects like the Pittsburgh Project,  would be tantamount to comparing  mensuration to calculus in mathematics- one is basic, the other is advanced.

Professor Caroline Wagner of Ohio State University at the ATPS Annual Conference 2012, held from November 18 to 22 in Addis Ababa Ethiopia, discussed the evolution and present day existence of a knowledge network and the fact that we as scientists and engineers need to be conscious of its existence and find ways of plugging into the network as well as syncing with it.  This is a view I understand and appreciate as one who is enthusiastic about technology and knowledge advancement. But questions arise . First among them is “how do we bring this to bear on Nigeria’s current state in robotics and by extension prosthetics?”  In thinking of this, three levels of required development come to mind. I will discuss these forthwith. However I want to as a prelude discuss knowledge and skills. F.E. Ogbimi in his brilliant book “Solution to Mass Unemployment in Nigeria” states that learning is the key to industrialization. He also shows that learning is a combination of both knowledge and skills. Both are indispensable. This I also agree with. It would therefore not be enough to have access to knowledge, we need skills. Another way to put it will be to say that beyond knowing about technology based on what others have written and said about it, there is the place for experiential knowledge- knowledge that only truly comes from having handled and manipulated this technology. This experiential knowledge equates to skill. Learning is incomplete if only one of these ingredients is present.

The first level of development is the basic level. This is the level on which I believe most Nigerian research projects are. This level as with other levels is unavoidable. Every society has to pass through this level before moving on to another. I however also believe that even for societies that have gone on to higher levels of development, there needs to exist a large portion of members who still constantly carry out research and projects at this level. Thus we find that even in advanced western countries, there are still secondary school students, hobbyists, and robotic enthusiasts who consistently work on DIY projects that of course do not necessarily rank high in sophistication. This however serves to ensure the passing on of that experiential knowledge as well as to give room for serendipity.  By serendipity I am referring to that discovery of something new that goes on to further strengthen and enhance higher levels. It is therefore easy to understand what was meant by one of the medical doctors present at the aforementioned meeting when he said that we need to develop certain medical equipment ourselves using locally available materials instead of procuring them from others countries. He emphasised that this would aid troubleshooting these equipment should they ever go faulty-you made them so you can fix them if they are broken.

The second level is the intermediate level. Projects that exist on this level indicate an improved understanding of the dynamics of the field of robotics. They exist on a higher pedestal compared to the basic projects.

Lastly, we have the advanced level. This level consists of projects such as Rodney Brooks’ Baxter and the NASA’s Robonaut series to mention a few.  In prosthetics, examples include Dean Kamen’s  Luke , the John Hopkin’s University’s  neutrally-controlled arm (some have called it the RP2009) and of course the Pittsburgh project. These projects are often front leaders in the various areas and are born out of intense collaborative efforts by field specialists including mechanical engineers, computer engineers, design engineers and biomedical consultants. Oftentimes these projects are sponsored by government agencies (DARPA and NASA for example) or high-level investors.

Now we return to my initial question: “when will Nigeria or even Africa come to the advanced level in robotics research and development?” I am not just asking this out of a misplaced sense of solidarity or patriotism. I believe that the purpose of learning and by extension technology is to improve the general condition of life of those who possess it. Nigeria NEEDS to develop and has to do it FAST. But we are slightly disadvantaged. We are behind and there is a lot of catching up to do. Yet one of the conclusions reached at the ATPS Annual Conference 2012 held from November 18 to 22 was on the need for Africa not just to catch-up but to be keen on leapfrogging the rest of the world where science and technology is concerned.  Can this be done? I believe the answer is yes. I also believe the way to start is found in Professor Wagner’s advice. WE NEED TO TAP INTO ALREADY AVAILABLE KNOWLEDGE NETWORKS. Put another way, do not spend valuable time trying to generate knowledge that is already available; spend time acquiring the required skills for handling that knowledge. So rather than see ourselves as being disadvantaged, perhaps we should see ourselves as favoured. We have a chance to stand on the shoulders of great researchers the world over via the emergent knowledge network and chart the quickest possible route from the basic to the advanced levels of robotic development.

I have written primarily with Nigeria as my background. I would like to hear what holds in you country. Please feel free to drop your comments.