Born in eastern Styria, Martin Kandlhofer has been interested in software and programming since his school days and nearly studied German studies or history. To write a book is still a dream for the sports-loving, science fiction fan, but in the end he studied software development at TU Graz “the logical and also the right decision”. In his doctoral thesis at the Institute of Software Technology, Martin Kandlhofer conducts research as a specialist in educational robotics and how the young generation from nursery school upwards to school and university can be inspired about robotics and artificial intelligence.
News+Stories: Mr Kandlhofer, what does a robot look like?
Martin Kandlhofer: Most people, children included, have a very clear idea in their heads. In many people’s imagination, robots have two legs, eyes and a face similar to a human. Like Nao, the white humanoid robot. Visually, this has nothing to do with an industrial robot. Lego robots or TurtelBots, small “faceless” robots on wheels, don’t necessarily look sexy but can be relatively easily programmed. I always show Nao at the end of my courses, otherwise the kids focus on this humanoid robot and get distracted from the actual exciting bit – which is, for example, programming Lego robots. This is also part of my job – indeed, our job – at the Institute of Software Engineering at TU Graz: to make it clear to people that it’s not important what a robot looks like, but rather what it can do and how it can be taught.
Do you give children’s courses in robotics?
Martin Kandlhofer: In my doctoral thesis, I deal with the question of how to convey the topic of robotics and artificial intelligence in teaching, and how one can basically use robots as learning tools. I’m not doing this just theoretically, I make use of findings in robotics workshops held at the TU Graz nanoversity child care facility. Also at the Rosental Kindergarten, in a few projects , we’ve tried to find out how to convey to children an understanding of robotics using various experimental stages. For very small children, we’ve got acidic yellow bee robots, which are very popular. Even in kindergarten you can convey quite dry content with a bit of fun.
What is the aim of robotics in teaching?
Martin Kandlhofer: We want to raise an awareness of what’s behind all the technologies children use, in a playful way. Smart phones and Google maps, for example. This is not magic but rather is based on quite normal concepts and abilities that you can learn. This awareness will be supplemented from primary school through junior school and upper school so that children are ready for the occupations and studies of the future.
Do they remain interested in the topic for so many years?
Martin Kandlhofer: If their curiosity is ignited and they have possibilities to try things out and develop themselves, why not? A part of my doctoral thesis deals with the impact of all the educational robotics activities. And there are already a number of former students with exemplary careers who began robotics activities at school and have meanwhile written their doctoral thesis, founded a robotics firm or work in a related profession. Direct feedback from teaching staff and pupils shows that the approach can work in a sustainable way.
How good do you have to be to be able to program robots?
Martin Kandlhofer: When you start you don’t need any experience at all. Even in kindergarten. Of course over time it becomes more complex. And at some point , you are slowed down and become a bit disillusioned especially when you program and program and the robot still doesn’t do what it should. Children and young people very often surprise me with their designs and solutions. There are the most innovative solutions, for instance, as to how you can attach a sensor. Also in software, there are sometimes quite unorthodox solutions. But when it works, it’s an experience of success like no other, and it increases their motivation and takes away their shyness.
Are girls and boys interested in equal measure? What are your observations?
Martin Kandlhofer: It’s very interesting to observe. Up to puberty, interest, motivation and understanding are fairly similar. In fact, the girl pupils in our workshops are cleverer and solve the tasks very soon, whereas the boys like to try things out more. Later, it becomes a bit more difficult, and the girls start to get a bit lost. At this point it is mainly groups of boys who come to our courses. This is an issue which we haven’t clarified yet and for which there are still many open questions.
What educational provisions are there for the younger generation interested in robotics?
Martin Kandlhofer: We reach children and young people up to higher school-leaving age through the RoboCupJunior international robot competition. Masters’ students can work independently in teams on their projects and take part in competitions. By the way, our TEDUSAR search and rescue robotics team won the world championship title for Graz last year. But for bachelors students, between RoboCupJunior and student teams there is nothing at the moment. This is not an optimum situation. In the best case, young people who benefit from our courses at school go to TU Graz in order to expand their previous knowledge. And then they have to wait until they do their master’s degree till they can get involved again. This is the reason why this year we’re organising the TU Graz Robotics Challenge for the first time – a robotics competition for all TU Graz bachelor students.
How present is robotics in your life, apart from at TU Graz?
Martin Kandlhofer: I would also have loved to read German studies or history, and outside of programming and other things, I still have a passion for literature. I read a lot – from general fiction to science fiction – and I write short stories, and at some time or another I’ll definitely write a book. I like sports and enjoy watching TV series. I recommend West World because it takes up the topics of artificial intelligence and robotics and puts the spotlight on ethical aspects. It asks questions like when is a robot just a robot and at what point does it become a sentient being.
Regarding ethics: do you often have to justify your work?
Martin Kandlhofer: There are always questions about the ethical aspects of my work. For example, will robots run amok one day? The well-known images from film and television play a role here. There are fears that robots will enslave humanity. Or that self-driving cars will get out of control. Of course, it is true that there are still a lot of issues open until we have truly autonomous vehicles. Robotic cars have to make decisions in critical situations. For instance, whether to run over the person on the pavement or to avoid them after all and risk the lives of the passengers. This is a crucial meeting point between robots and ethics. These are questions often posed by young people and also by teachers, and there really are no easy yes or no, black or white answers.
How do you combat skepticism?
Martin Kandlhofer: You can easily allay worries about robots going crazy: we actually program them. And robots aren’t as intelligent as some people think. Also, the hardware is not really as advanced as all that. And as regards ethical considerations, we just have to discuss them, collect the pros and cons, and explain them. We can direct attention to the present reality, take up the supposed horror scenario of the future and explain what the situation really is at the moment. Many people are downright disillusioned and disappointed when they see real, currently existing robots. They’ve got a different picture in their heads about robotics. They’re disappointed that the reality is less spectacular. But that’s the way it is. Also, with respect to interaction between or combination of human and machine, quite a lot is happening. You could also implement RFID chips so that, for instance, they could open doors contactlessly. Actually, I am also part cyborg.
You’re a cyborg?
Martin Kandlhofer: Essentially, yes. I am a diabetic and there is a new possibility of checking blood sugar levels by having an RFID chip implanted. It’s actually fastened on the outside of the upper arm and a small sensor is embedded in the skin and measures the blood sugar level. I’ve had this since December and I get information about my blood sugar level directly on my mobile phone. It works really well and is very practical. Another question is, of course, data protection. Because in principle, anyone with a powerful reading device can find out my blood sugar level.
If you are completing a bachelor’s degree at TU Graz and would like to take part in the TU Graz Robotics Challenge 2017, send a letter of motivation (1 A4 page, Arial 12pt) with RE: “[robotics challenge]” to Martin Kandlhofer by 4th April.