By Tomohiro Yamaguchi, U.S. Embassy intern

Dr. Robin Murphy, Director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University, was recently invited by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to visit Japan and speak in various locations throughout the nation about U.S.-Japan cooperation on robotic development. After the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, Dr. Murphy spent one month in the disaster-affected region working with a team from Tohoku University to support search and rescue operations using robots. I had an opportunity to interview Dr. Murphy on behalf of American View about U.S.-Japan cooperation on robotic engineering and other topics.

American View: What made you decide to specialize in robotics?

Dr. Murphy: I decided to specialize in robotics for a silly reason. I had a fellowship in computer science in graduate school and I had to pick a professor who worked in a certain area. There was one who did robotics who was brand new, and there was one who was really old and grouchy and he did something entirely different. So I decided to go with robotics!

But I got into disaster robotics in 1995. For the Japanese, that was the year of the Kobe earthquake. For us, it was the year of the Oklahoma City bombing. Both of those events, combined with the work that everyone was doing – the robotics for small robots that would become the Mars Rovers – just made it seem natural to think about those robots being used for disaster response.

Dr. Robin Murphy

Dr. Robin Murphy practices operating ground robots on a pile of rubble

American View: You and your team played an important role in recovery efforts following the March 11 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear accident. What was it like to cooperate with Japan?

Dr. Murphy: We’ve always had a fantastic relationship with Japan and Japanese researchers. My work started in 1995 with the Oklahoma City bombing. Independently, Dr. Satoshi Tadokoro of Tohoku University started his work when he was at Kobe University. In 1999, we met and began to work together. We had already worked on three disasters together to before the tsunami.

I really hope that the cooperation that we already have between Japan and the United States continues and increases. The two countries have very different educational foci in the way they approach robotics, and those complementary ideas and unique perspectives that each of us bring to the table are really important to bring new innovations together.

In the United States, robotics education has focused more on software, control of mechanism, and artificial intelligence. Something that we’re very envious of the Japanese researchers is their ability to build beautiful mechanisms with such sophistication and power.

photo of Dr. Robin Murphy, Director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University

Dr. Robin Murphy, Director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University

American View: Do you think rescue robots will be able to take the place of human rescuers?

Dr. Murphy: I don’t think robots will take the place of human rescuers. They’re not intended to. Do fire trucks take the place of a responder? Of course not. These are tools. They give responders new tools, new ways, new capabilities, so we’re helping them. We’re not replacing human responders or dogs.

When a disaster happens, there are so many humans, so many stakeholders making decisions. There are people who are worried about public works, people worried about search and rescue, people worried about the medical side and hospitals, and people worried about how to make sure there’s enough sanitation and sewage. All of those groups need information and that will never go away. But what robots can do is provide them much more information, more accurately and faster. So it’s all about enabling these people to make the best decision possible faster so it can save lives and speed up economic recovery.

Disaster robotics is a field that continues to expand. When we started disaster robotics it seemed it was very focused on building collapses and things like earthquakes. Now we’ve expanded it to consider how robots can help with epidemics such as the Ebola outbreak, how robots can protect health workers and help decontaminate places that have been infected, and all sorts of new ideas.

American View: What message would you like to convey to Japanese young people who are interested in careers in robotics or science?

Dr. Murphy: If Japanese young people are interested in robotics, they don’t need to think about it only as being a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, or a computer engineer. There are so many other aspects of robotics. There’s cognitive engineering, which is to make robots smarter. There is psychology to make them acceptable and easy to use. So whatever skill that they have and they’re good at, it can be applied to robots.

I would encourage them to think about coming to graduate school in the United States. If they’re a little bit timid about coming to the United States, there are so many universities here that have exchange programs that are set up so you can do your graduate work and then take a year to continue it in the United States. You don’t have to just close your eyes and hope you made a great decision to choose that university.

In the United States, graduate school is about learning to create the next big thing. It means you can become the director of a program or a large company. You can start your own company. But overall, you can be the most creative person you can be.

Dr. Robin Murphy

Dr. Robin Murphy operates an AirRobot quadrotor at "Disaster City" in College Station, Texas

Since it was my first time doing an interview for American View, I was a little nervous at first. But Dr. Murphy put me at ease by answering my questions thoughtfully and making sure I fully understood what she was saying. Out of all her answers, I was most surprised by her response to my question about why she first decided to study robotics. For someone who is now a leading scientist in the field of disaster robotics, her reason for going into the field was unexpectedly simple. It made me realize that decisions you make without thinking too deeply can end up having a major effect on your future even though you might not notice it until much later. I also learned from Dr. Murphy that robots are not meant to take the place of human responders and about some of the differences between robotics education in the United States and Japan. It was a fascinating interview, and I hope that Dr. Murphy’s message will reach as many young people in Japan as possible.