June 27, 2017
Lucia Edna P. de Guzman
Cover art Samantha Gonzales
How long do we have until robots gain sentience and thrust us into an Asimovian dystopia? Ely Ampao of PhilRobotics and JumpSparc said that given the great strides the world has made in robotics and artificial intelligence, we have more or less a decade until humanity creates our future robot overlords.
But kidding aside, the Philippines is lagging behind other countries when it comes to robotics. In an interview with SparkUp at the sidelines of the Startup Project expo at the University of Sto. Tomas last June 3, Mr. Ampao said that while they’re doing their part in making robotics more accessible to the public, they’re facing two major problems in trying to make it more popular in the Philippines.
First, no one has made robots “sexy” in the Philippine context yet.
And no, we’re not talking about robot companions ala‑Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) in the 2001 Spielberg movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence. “Robotics in the Philippines isn’t sexy. When I say sexy I mean it makes people go ‘wow’ when they see it,” Mr. Ampao explained. “I think someone has to make our own version of robotics. We’re too influenced by the West and the Chinese.”
Indeed, most science fiction influences stem from Western nations and Japan nowadays, a far cry from its Czech roots with Karel Capek’s 1920s play Rossum’s Universal Robots, which popularized the word “robot”. When we hear of robots, we think of Japanese mechs and American cyborgs. What does the Philippines have to offer? The 2007 Metro Manila Film Festival movie Resiklo starring Bong Revilla?
It is in the context of making “sexy robots” that the role of art and media comes in. “Maybe if someone could make a television show or a movie with Philippine robots, people would get interested in it,” Mr. Ampao said. It is here where science needs art, and art can find itself inspired by science.
The second problem robotics in the Philippines face is the perception that it is an expensive field.
“Hardware can be expensive. That’s the major deterrence that we’ve discovered,” said Mr. Ampao. “That’s why we’re also promoting Hebocon where you can use everyday stuff to make robots.”
And robot enthusiasts in the Philippines early this year set up their own informal Hebocon, with robots made of chichirya wrappers and barrel men. JumpSparc is also working with schools, which have the money to invest in robotics programs and short courses.
“We’re talking with our student ambassadors to have mini meet‑ups again and we’re trying to get another set of mini‑workshops. Venues where people can play around with robotics,” said Mr. Ampao. “I think that‑s the way to do it, get regular meet‑ups going.”
Despite these issues, Mr. Ampao remains optimistic about the future of robotics in the Philippines. “We live in exciting times,” he said, citing the proposals in the Senate for a Philippine Space program. “And for that we need more scientists and more techies. Bring them back here from abroad.”
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