The Big Interview: Stewart Miller, CEO of the National Robotarium

Stewart Miller is the chief executive of the National Robotarium, which describes itself as a “world-leading” centre for robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), and set to open later this year in the Scottish capital.

Delivered by Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, the venture is part of the Data-Driven Innovation initiative, supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4m from the Scottish Government through the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South-east Scotland City Region Deal.

It is expected to open on Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh campus in the autumn, having been previously earmarked to debut in the spring. However, amid its bid to bring about societal benefits, it has already flagged activity regarding a robot that can clean train carriages, looking at whether another has a beneficial effect on people with dementia, and its work on a robot dog to help experts understand hazardous environments.

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Mr Miller’s appointment as the National Robotarium’s first-ever CEO was revealed in September, a move branded a “major milestone” in the development of the UK’s tech economy.

He explains that he has spent the last 20 years in senior business leadership roles, including chief technology officer at Innovate UK, and at aerospace giants Leonardo and BAE Systems, having started out as a design engineer working in the field of fast jets.

As for why he took on his current role, "I saw the opportunity to help build a business with great purpose, leading a team to deliver something that both creates economic benefit and inspires engineers to start their career journey, just like I was inspired all those years ago”.

You said when your appointment as the National Robotarium’s first CEO was announced that the venture has “enormous potential to transform lives”. Can you explain how it has progressed so far?

The National Robotarium is an investment for the future that aims to benefit the economy and society using engineering and technology directly to achieve that.

'Transforming and improving business has been the theme of my career,' says Mr Miller. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

In my first six months I’ve been focused on three main things – developing a strategy that delivers for our stakeholders, customers and future partners alike, building an ecosystem of contacts that can benefit from and contribute to the projects, research and innovation we’re helping to drive, and, most importantly, building a world-class team that will deliver on the incredible potential of the National Robotarium over the coming years.

How much of a landmark is the forthcoming opening for Scotland and the robotics/AI sector more broadly?

Scotland has a long and rich heritage in AI and robotics, which will be further strengthened by the opening of the ground-breaking, purpose-built facility. The building will be the most advanced of its type in the UK and will provide extensive world-class facilities for partnerships to develop solutions to real-world problems.

Key areas will include how AI and robotics can help drive improvements in healthcare, human-robot interaction and assisted living, offshore renewable energy, agriculture, hazardous environments, and manufacturing amongst many other key economic sectors.

The CEO believes the opening of the National Robotarium will extend Scotland's 'long and rich heritage' in AI and robotics. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

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The National Robotarium will act as a collaborative hub, bringing together academics and global companies, providing a catalyst for entrepreneurship, and delivering sustainable economic benefit to the whole of the UK.

The facility adds to Heriot-Watt University and University of Edinburgh’s existing laboratories that are already delivering cutting-edge research into new technologies in partnership through the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics.

To what extent has its progress been hampered by the pandemic?

Like most businesses, we’ve not been immune to the challenges of the stretched global supply chain triggered by the pandemic. Despite this, our building is expected to open in the autumn. Within our existing facilities, research projects are already achieving widespread interest, impact and benefit for industry and society.

The pandemic has ignited interest in robotic solutions across a diverse range of sectors and disciplines. Technological advances in intelligent sensing and telepresence, for example, have captured the attention of healthcare practitioners as key services moved rapidly online.

How exactly will the facility work with industry, helping bring about, say, self-building scaffolding for the decommissioning of nuclear power stations, but also supporting entrepreneurs/businesses as they seek to innovate?

At its core, the National Robotarium’s work is market-led. Our ambition is to assist all types of partners to accelerate research from laboratory to market, reduce cost and risk, increase opportunity and, ultimately, pave the way for the UK to take a global leadership role in AI and robotics technology.

One of our key focus areas for industry collaboration is how robotics can reduce the need for workers to be physically present in hazardous or challenging working environments.

Connect-R, led by my colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, is a great example. It is a self-building robotic invention that enables safer and easier work for the energy sector and, eventually, space. It eliminates the need for humans to come into contact with harmful chemicals and toxic materials and could revolutionise nuclear decommissioning.

It also shows that our focus isn’t just academic and theoretical, but has practical and immediate benefits to offer the sector.

A key area of focus for the National Robotarium is health, with an assisted living laboratory having been created on site, for example. Can you give more details of your work in this area?

Today, medical and social care robotics are starting to support and complement existing healthcare providers to deliver care for their patients. Further advances will be crucial if we’re to alleviate the increasing strain on the world’s health and social care services.

At the National Robotarium, we’re exploring the many ways that we can help. For example, we’re investigating the ways in which new robot-assisted surgery methods can improve surgical outcomes and patient care.

This includes a breakthrough technique, the benefits of which were recently recognised in the Scottish Parliament, to help surgeons decide how much of a patient’s tissue is affected by cancer and should be removed during robotic surgery.

Science fiction has seen the public fear potential negative consequences of robots and AI – Terminator 2 springs to mind! – and the National Robotarium has been working on research around communicating how technological advances can help people. What does this involve?

The opportunity to incorporate AI and robotics into our workplaces, homes and services is becoming increasingly important as technological advancements and their capabilities grow ever-more sophisticated. It’s important that people feel safe and comfortable and understand the benefits that robots can bring to our society.

At the National Robotarium, we’re leading two multi-million-pound projects dedicated to researching trust in autonomous systems. The project is bringing together expertise in robotics, cognitive science and psychology, in an academic consortium with colleagues from Imperial College London and the University of Manchester to improve how we interact with autonomous systems.

We will also have a head of public engagement for AI and robotics role at the National Robotarium.

To what extent can the National Robotarium help encourage young people in Scotland to pursue a career in robotics and related areas, particularly girls who have been traditionally under-represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects?

Engaging with young people and encouraging them to consider a career in robotics and AI is a key focus of our work.

Last year, we launched our first public outreach programme to inspire and educate young people with the aim to drive engagement and broaden access to cutting-edge technology. It will build future skills and encourage more young people from a wider range of backgrounds to consider starting a robotics career.

Our new facility will include an Education Hub to engage the public regularly through school visits and open days. Students will also be able to work on real-world problems through internships and industry-led group projects, giving them industry-focused education – an important component in making sure that women and young girls have equal opportunities to begin and develop their careers in Stem.

Who do you admire in business?

I think the standout achiever at the moment is Elon Musk. In the past I have admired what Steve Jobs and [engineer] Isambard Kingdom Brunel have achieved. Of course they were all human beings and had their faults too, but who doesn’t?

What I admire most about them all is they managed to keep true to what they were trying to achieve even though the enterprise became so large that no one person could possibly know everything that was going on. I think they did this by coupling a compelling and exciting vision of the future that inspired people to try and make it real, with an ability to get things done whatever the obstacles.

Can you give any indication of what the facility will achieve/announce in its first two years of being officially open – and how it will achieve its aim of being globally recognised in its field?

We’ll achieve our aim of being a world-class robotics centre by delivering value, continuing to attract the best talent and by tackling society’s big challenges. By working with businesses small and large, and the public sector – we have strong political and public support already – we will continue to develop cutting-edge innovations.

I can see us increasingly involved in supporting the transition to renewable energy and you’ll definitely see us build on our strengths in healthcare and social care. I expect further collaborations with companies and organisations from across the world too.

Building on our AI capabilities, connecting with more global industry partners, helping spin out more new businesses, and looking at robotics through an ethical lens. It’s a big agenda – and I’m so proud to be involved.

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