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7 Pro Tips for New and Aspiring Roboticists

  • It's been nearly two decades since Intuitive Surgical launched its first da Vinci system and yet, in many ways, the field of robotic-assisted surgery is still in its infancy. Add to that the rapidly developing field of artificial intelligence (AI), and the job prospects for someone interested in pursuing a career in robotics and/or AI are incredible.

    "I would love to be a kid from the [Silicon] Valley right now graduating with a degree in AI," said Thomas Low, director of robotics at Menlo Park, CA-based SRI International.

    Companies developing AI and robotic systems are challenged with finding and retaining the talent needed to make the impact they want to, Low said during a panel discussion at MD&M West in Anaheim this week. Low and his fellow panelists offered some interesting career advice for students and entry-level roboticists and AI developers. Read on to learn 7 pieces of wisdom the panelists shared with attendees.

  • Look More Broadly at Engineering Disciplines

    To be a roboticist is different from being a mechanical engineer or an electrical engineer, it requires a much broader cross-disciplinary skillset," Low said. "My advice for somebody who is interested in getting into a robotics field would be to look more broadly than one specific engineering discipline and try to have at least a good understanding of the complementary disciplines that are peripheral to the specialty."

     

    Leo Petrossian, co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles, CA-based Neural Analytics, agreed.

    "Being able to speak a different engineering language is essential to being a good roboticist," Petrossian said. "For robotics to be created you need the intersection of electrical, mechanical, systems control, software, firmware, you need all these people to work together."

    Petrossian said if he was giving advice to somebody entering college today and trying to select a field of study, he'd tell them they can't go wrong with any of the subordinate AI or robotics disciplines.

    "I would encourage a broad base of skill and a subspecialization in one focus area," he said. "There's a company called Valve that coined the term T-shaped employees, which is like really broad knowledge and subspecialization in one thing. So for example downstairs there's a bunch of robots that do image-processing to pick up objects. I want you to become an expert in anatomical identification with a robot. How many people do you think I could find today in the workforce that have any experience with anatomical AI robotic? The answer is like three."

    You're at the intersection of what is the AI, the robot, and the human, those intersections are where the value is and if you specialize in any one of them you'll be fine for a long, long time.

     

     

     

  • Speak the Language

    "Being able to speak a different engineering language is essential to being a good roboticist," said Leo Petrossian, co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles, CA-based Neural Analytics said. "For robotics to be created you need the intersection of electrical, mechanical, systems control, software, firmware, you need all these people to work together."

    Petrossian said if he was giving advice to somebody entering college today and trying to select a field of study, he'd tell them they can't go wrong with any of the subordinate AI or robotics disciplines.

    "I would encourage a broad base of skill and a subspecialization in one focus area," he said. "There's a company called Valve that coined the term T-shaped employees, which is like really broad knowledge and subspecialization in one thing. So for example, downstairs there's a bunch of robots that do image-processing to pick up objects. I want you to become an expert in anatomical identification with a robot. How many people do you think I could find today in the workforce that have any experience with anatomical AI robotic? The answer is like three."

    "You're at the intersection of what is the AI, the robot, and human, those intersections are where the value is and if you specialize in any one of them you'll be fine for a long, long time," Petrossian said.

  • Never Underestimate the Value of a Good User Interface

    William Altman, CEO of Houston, TX-based CorInnova, said his daughter is studying visual art in college and while it would seem like that doesn't have anything to do with AI or robotics, she is taking courses in human-computer interface, which is, in fact, a valuable skill for companies developing robotic technologies, he said. His fellow panelist Low agreed.

    "So she's taking artistic training but also taking technical courses to help the interface between the two and to help make the interface of what you guys are developing more user-friendly."

    "Since you mentioned HI, that was the secret sauce in making [Intuitive Surgical's] da Vinci," Low said. "It's a chain of exquisite engineering, but it was the way that the operator interacted naturally with the system that made it different from what the competitors were doing at the time and really led to its ongoing success."

    Petrossian agreed. "Never underestimate the value of UI," he said.

  • Become the Expert

    "We're at such a naissance time in medical robotics that I would encourage everybody not to just learn from experts but become the experts," Petrossian said. "I personally would not trust any books that may be published on the subject because if you look at all the AIs that have gotten through FDA, 80% of them took place in the last year. This is a developing landscape and rather than be passengers following a trend, jump in and be part of the trend foreground."

    It's a great time and a great industry to take advantage of the opportunities for entrepreneurship, he added.

  • Don't Be Afraid to Go Back to the Drawing Board

    The panelists also had advice for medical device engineers and designers that may be just starting out in their careers. 

    "Just from our own experience, if it doesn't work the first time, try, try again, but if it doesn't work after awhile take a different approach and look at the problem in a completely different way and see if you can find a different way to get your solution," Altman said. "We had a version of our device that we wanted to make durable for two weeks ... man, it took us a year and we still couldn't get it consistently past 16 to 20 days so we had to say 'let's go back to the drawing board with a different way to design the chambers' and now we have two different devices that is durable 30, 40 days and haven't stopped yet in terms of durability. So ... don't be afraid to start over again if you have to."

  • Never Be the Smartest Person in the Room

    "Never be the smartest person in the room," Low said. "If you want to learn and you want to grow you need to find mentors that you can learn from."

  • Understand Your Customers

    "I would say really understand your customers," Low said. "Not that they have all the answers, but you have to understand what their pain points are to develop the right product for them. You may know things that they don't know but they certainly know things that you don't know."

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