This article originally appeared in the Greenwich Time; to view the original article, head here.
It is not often that one can say Sacred Heart Greenwich has gone to the dogs, but that was the case Friday — to the delight of hundreds of students.
For a special end to computer science week at the all-girls private school, 300 students in Grades 9 through 12 gathered to hear an address from Nancy Greco, an engineer and director of research for Next Generation Computing at IBM.
Greco did not come empty-handed: She brought SPOT, a mobile robot that has a clear canine resemblance and is at the cutting edge in robotics.
Head of School Margaret Frazier told Greenwich Time she hopes Greco’s lessons and SPOT’s abilities will spark the students’ imaginations after the “completely joyful” in-school event.
“I want them to be inspired, whether they see themselves going into the fields of artificial intelligence, engineering, robotics or something different,” Frazier said. “I want them to think about what’s possible — because probably when Nancy was their age, she didn’t know she could be up here showing off a robot to students. What are they going to be doing in 25 or 30 years?”
SPOT’s appearance was a surprise for the students, and its many moves delighted the students in the school theater.
Controlled through the use of remote controls, SPOT walked across the stage, performed a dance and tilted its head to the side — just like a real dog might do. Greco also showed off SPOT’s capabilities by placing it on its side and demonstrating how it could turn back over and get back on its feet.
At the end of the presentation, SPOT even took a bow before the crowd.
The demonstration drew loud cheers and gasps of excitement as students recorded SPOT’s tricks on their cellphones. One student asked Frazier whether SPOT could come back for the basketball game and serve as their mascot.
The demonstration was educational as well, and Greco talked up the future of robotics, speaking in depth about how SPOT works. It uses new edge computing techniques to take data that would usually be on a cloud server to a CPU that is mobile inside the unit, she said. Cybersecurity measures are used to keep hackers from infiltrating the unit, she said.
Robots such as SPOT are not designed to replace human workers, Greco said. SPOT was created and programmed for tasks that fall into what she called the “Three Ds.” That covers tasks that are “dull,” such as SPOT-checking the status of fire extinguishers and reading gauges; “dirty,” because they involve going into hot, sticky and messy areas; and “dangerous” because sometimes the work involves radioactive, chemically dangerous or high voltage areas, Greco said.
“We are going to have SPOT and other robots take on tasks humans are doing, but when you sit back, you ask, ‘Are these tasks that people really want to do’?” Greco said. “Do you really want a career inspecting fire extinguishers? Do you want a career reading gauges? Do you want a career investigating spills? The answer is no, and believe me I’ve done those tasks.”
Greco also addressed fears about robotics and artificial intelligence that are part of popular culture thanks to movies such as “The Terminator” and others. SPOT poses no danger to anyone, she said.
“He has no teeth, he has no claws and I can see him coming,” Greco said. “I’m more scared of social media because I can’t see it coming. SPOT is kind of clunky. He can’t hurt me. ... He can out dance me, but I can out-run him.”
Some members of the school’s Robotics Club got a chance to take the controls and put SPOT through a few paces, including club co-captain Kristin Morrow, who was thrilled.
“It was so, so cool,” said Morrow, an 11th-grader. “I was also kind of nervous because I didn’t want to mess up. It was so cool to try it out and see the different ways it would react to what I was doing. It was really fun, and I was really lucky to do it.”
Morrow said her takeaway from the event was to think outside the box and come up with new solutions, such as SPOT, for doing tasks to help people in the future.
Other students embraced Greco’s journey: She began her career as a chemist and is now a leading engineer working in robotics and artificial intelligence, which Greco told the students was a dream come true for her.
“I thought it was especially impressive how Ms. Greco’s career has advanced over the years,” said Annie O’Connor, a 12th-grader. “She’s had such experience in technology, and that’s such an evolving field. It’s very inspiring to see how her career has progressed and how she’s become involved in such amazing projects.”
That appeals to O’Connor’s interests and to 12th-grader Chelsea Hyland, who works with O’Connor in coding class. Hyland said she was taken by SPOT’s abilities and the years of hard work of development and design as well as programming that it represents.
“Annie and I are taking a class in Java, and this shows what hard coding can result in,” Hyland said. “They’ve been working on this for 20 years, and it’s really cool how they have built this.”
Tenth-grader Lindsey Taylor also was struck by the 20 years of work that went into developing SPOT and the 500 other robots like it.
“It shows computer science is very much a collaborative process, and it’s something you have to revise along the way to get it right,” Taylor said.
Greco is a member of Sacred Heart Greenwich’s STEAM Advisory Board and helped to establish the school’s partnerships with IBM and NASA.
Ana Nystedt, a member of the computer science faculty at Sacred Heart Greenwich, said she hoped the event inspires students’ curiosity and pushes them to learn more about technology and how to use it in a productive way.
“These days you see a lot of videos of technology that cannot be real and is just used for marketing,” Nystedt said. “When you see something real and live, it has a great value. To see something first-hand can really make your brain start thinking.”