“These girls are change-makers,” Roya Mahboob says of the students who formed Afghanistan’s first female robotics team, and travelled to the US to compete in an Olympics-style competition in July 2017. “These children motivated many girls to become technologists and believe in their ability in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. They have become a symbol.”
Role models like these are needed throughout the world, especially for women and girls, who are vastly outnumbered in artificial intelligence and robotics: in the UK, only 16 percent of computer-science students at degree level and 9 percent of engineers are female.
The Afghan programme shows how robotics and AI are being added to curriculums around the world to teach children how to combine technology and creativity to spur future innovation. We are only beginning to glimpse the integral role AI will play in our lives, through devices like Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, or Apple’s Siri – even though they have been around for some time, they are only the start.
“It’s going to be intrinsic to everything we do,” says Roshni Patel, the Managing Director heading Accenture’s Financial Services Robotics Process Automation business. “We’ll need to be in a position where we can amend our devices – Alexa, or phone, whatever it is, in a way that we want so it serves what we’re trying to do.”
This means going beyond how to physically configure devices, to knowing how to programme them. “From the earliest levels, school children need to start understanding and learning how to code in the languages required for artificial intelligence,” Roshni says.
For her team at Accenture, “robotics” is software: programming robot controllers to work within systems, moving structured data around and freeing humans up from repetitive computer tasks. “And it is only the first technology in the broader spectrum of automation,” Roshni says. “It gets more complicated, but also more interesting as you look at capabilities such as natural language processing and machine learning.”
Robotics, AI and coding are also crucial to address an impending global skills shortage: while robots are poised to take over a multitude of tasks, people who can build, programme and maintain those robots are going to be increasingly in demand. The more encouragement girls are given to experiment with programming machines, the more likely they’ll be to see technology and engineering as career paths that are worth pursuing.
Afghanistan’s manufacturing industry, Roya says, is underperforming. “We can’t even produce our own pencils, or even biscuits,” she says. “Everything’s from the outside.” It’s one of the reasons why, after hearing about the FIRST Global Robotics Competition, featuring thousands of international teams of high-schoolers demonstrating their robot creations in Washington, DC, she decided to create a test that schoolgirls across Afghanistan could take.
Of the 150 who participated, she chose 20 for a robotics squad and started coaching them. Of these, seven formed the key team, and six were selected for the final trip to the US. The captain of this crew, Fatima Qaderyan, was 14 when she was selected. “She’s a genius,” Roya says. “Besides her skills in robotics, she’s a genius at writing stories, and talking about politics. We can’t write like her, I have to show my texts to her to correct for me.”
Together, the team developed and built a robot that could find coloured balls and move them into groups according to their colour. In the meantime, they applied for a US visa to make the trip — twice, and were rejected twice. Eventually, they were granted a special 10-day visa exemption, and were greeted at the competition as heroes, going on to win a special medal for courageous achievement. While the Afghan robot didn’t win any golds, the simple fact that the team had participated, visibly demonstrating how it was possible to overcome serious obstacles and stereotypes to pursue science and technology, created a ripple effect that went on to be transformative.
“The fact that these girls in Afghanistan are learning this stuff really is amazing because it’s in Afghanistan,” Accenture’s Roshni says. “There’s a perspective for everyone here in that they’re doing the right thing for their future and the future of society. I don’t think learning this stuff is negotiable anymore.”
“When they returned to Afghanistan, Roya says “I thought that we were going to be ignored, as we were always ignored, but things changed.” Afghan government ministers personally congratulated the team, including the President, Ashraf Ghani. “We told President Ghani that we want to build the first school of Technology, Engineering, Maths and Entrepreneurship,” Roya says, “and he and his vice-president were fully supportive of the idea. I was surprised at what was happening.”
That’s not to say that the path has been smooth. Fatima’s father was killed two weeks after her return from the US, in an ISIS bomb attack on a Shia mosque, that is thought to have nothing to do with the robotics team’s activities, Roya says. The team have been moved to a bigger school in Herat, in order to hide them from conservatives who try to suppress girls’ education, and the girls cover their faces when they exit the school building. The more exposure they get, the “more their lives are in danger, she says, adding, “We’re thinking about moving them from Herat.”
Despite all this, the encouragement and training the robotics team have been given, and the opportunity they’ve been given to show what they’re capable of, provides a model of how to boost interest in STEM subjects. Last time Roya visited the team in Herat, she says, the girls told her, “that they have never had this feeling in their life before, that they are important. And suddenly people want to take pictures with them, and they’re not ashamed that they are girls. They’re feeling so cool about what’s happening, and they have so much confidence.” When she builds the new university she’s planning in Afghanistan, Roya says, the names of the girls will be on the building.
In the UK, robotics has been on the school curriculum since 2014, and robotics and AI were given a huge funding boost in 2017, thanks to the government’s £1 billion Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, but its use of industrial robots still lags behind Japan, Germany and the US. In Singapore, pre-school children are learning how to programme basic robotic toys, thanks to a pilot that aims to encourage kids to question how the technology around them is made.
Even baby toys such as building blocks or train tracks are being rebooted to teach children coding and robotics basics, Roshni points out.
What’s clear from the example set by the Afghan team is that all kinds of kids can get excited by technology, if they are set challenging problems and given a stage on which to compete. Even if they don’t go on to become AI specialists, the skills that building a machine gives them are ones that are essential for 21st-century jobs: problem-solving, teamwork, communication, innovation, building and testing models.
Chloe Leonard, an Accenture Financial Services Consultant, sees the importance of these skills every day and is coaching her younger sisters, 11-year-old twins, to develop their STEM skills. “That is the direction that the world is going in, and it’s going to keep evolving to the point where robotics is no longer the endpoint — it’s just a starting point,” Chloe says.
And it’s not just kids who need to learn these skills. As industries from space engineering to defence, healthcare and oil get disrupted by automation, an increasing number of workers will be required to retrain. Playing around with a Lego Mindstorm, or learning how to rig an Arduino microcontroller up to your coffee machine so you can turn it on with a tweet, might be the first step towards a new path for adults, too.
“Giving children the foundation to learn and actually understand how it all works will help reinforce the message that technology exists to improve our lives, not fight against us — or replace us,” Roshni adds.