Aimee Van Wynsberghe
Assistant professor, Ethics & Technology, University of Delft
And - Co-founder, co-director, Foundation for Responsible Robotics; recognised - L'Oreal/UNESCO Award for Women in Science 2018
Question everything, just because something has been a certain way for a long time, doesn't mean it has to be.
What do you do?
I teach University students about ethics. I most often am teaching engineering and technical students about medical ethics or robot ethics.
Another large part of my job at the University is doing my own research. My research is about robot ethics, the ethical issues raised by the design, development, and use of robotics and AI. I write papers and present them at conferences about things we should consider when it comes to robots in our lives. I have an NWO grant, from the Dutch National Science Foundation, to study the ethical issues related to service robots, which is basically any robot working outside the factory (e.g. robots for delivering things, packaging things, robots in humanitarian contexts, etc). Another large part of my job is public speaking - speaking to audiences around the world about what robot ethics is, why we need it, and how it can help us.
Why did you choose this field?
I began my academic studies in Cell Biology at the University of Western Ontario, Canada in 2002. During my studies I also was part of a research team working with surgical robots at Canadian Surgical Technologies and Advance Robotics. This experience led me to ask questions about the meaning of surgical robots; how would surgical robots change the practice of surgery for good and bad in ways that couldn’t necessarily be measured in quantitative studies. I wanted to know how the surgeon felt when they were performing the surgery, how the nurse experienced the new form of surgery, and what the patient thought of having a robot in the surgical room. Very few people were asking these kinds of questions at the time and I had a really supportive boss, Dr. Schlachta, who encouraged me to study ethics and learn how to find answers to these important questions. I then moved on to study the ethical issues related to robotics in two different Masters programs and then a PhD in the ethics of healthcare robots. Because of where I started, as a student in of biology working in robotics labs, my goal has been to make ethics something useful and practical for engineers.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
I would not have believed it were possible to achieve almost every step of this journey. The idea of doing a PhD in the very topic that inspired me in my first job I consider to be a great achievement.
That PhD also allowed me to recognize that in this very new field it would be up to me to create the job I want to have. I consider it to be an achievement to be a Professor in a University working with students in the sciences and to be their first introduction into ethics. To have a research grant that allows me to focus my time studying issues I believe are a game changer for society is something I am so proud of. To be co-founder and co-director of a not-for-profit that aims at being a powerful voice in the discussion of where this technology should (not can, but should) take us is something I take very seriously and consider one of my greatest achievements.
I was recently awarded the L’Oreal/UNESCO award for Women in Science which has inspired me to continue with all of my efforts in this space. But above all, I am happily married with two healthy and happy children and I am most proud that I am able to combine and to balance work and family life. This to me would not have seemed a possibility when I was younger.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM as someone who is asking a very different kind of question. I ask “what should we be doing with this technology, should we use it or not, how should we make it, how should we regulate it”? I love being this voice in the discussion because I think it’s necessary to avoid getting caught up in progress for progress' sake and this voice is there solely to protect society and the public good. I look forward to meeting people who share this vision and want to help make it happen.
But I also love having a role in public speaking and bringing this message to other disciplines and sectors. It makes me really excited to see the look on people’s faces during I talk when they light bulb goes off for them and they say “I hadn’t thought of that before”.
Best advice for next generation?
Stand up and speak up for yourself and others when you need to. Don’t worry if your job or studies aren’t always exactly what you planned, learn what you can and take it with you to the next study or job. Don’t apologize for having other commitments, like a family, that you need to take care of and balance with your job. Question everything, just because something has been a certain way for a long time, like more men in STEM than women, does not mean that it has to be like that. "Don't sacrifice your career for a family or vice versa. There are ways to make sure you can have both."
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
My role model is Dr. Joan Bishop who was my co-op supervisor in high school and the first woman in STEM to inspire me to love science. She has continued to support me for the last 20 years and has shown me how to be a professional women in STEM while balancing a family at the same time.