Sculpting robots

12/Dec/2016

For mechanical engineer Jamie Paik, the most beautiful art is functional, too. Her passions: designing elegant and nimble 'soft' robots, and creating devices that are indispensable for everyday life. By Celia Luterbacher

(From "Horizons" no. 111 December 2016)​​​

Jamie Paik has always been interested in art. Inspired by her painter mother, she discovered as a child a love of sculpture and the process of shaping materials. So, she became a mechanical engineer. "I wanted to study fine arts, but my parents said that was a hobby, and not a profession!", she says, laughing. "So the closest thing that was acceptable was mechanical engineering, because you create something out of nothing".

In 2012, Paik founded the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at EPFL. Her specialty is soft robots, devices that can rapidly alter their shape and movement in response to changing environments and situations. One of her lab's primary research projects is the 'origami robot': a Post-It note-sized sheet of 3D-printed tiles connected by flexible joints and embedded copper circuits, which folds itself into shapes and could have applications in tasks ranging from communications to search-and-rescue missions. But Paik says her research is inspired more by her love of sculpture than of paper cranes.

"When I was younger, I always thought paper was just for little kids", says Paik. "It's the most contained, safe medium to work with. It was always the physical change to a material that excited me. When you make something out of clay, you can then fire it, and it becomes hard. You can put a glaze on it, and see the chemical transition". This interest can easily be seen in her ceramic works, where lumpy clay has been shaped into colourful pieces featuring stern metallic blocks, intricate curlicues, and a pair of miniature mountains perched on a glazed hilltop.

A world of functional art

Her office is situated in EPFL's recently inaugurated mechanical engineering building – which, with its metallic, splay-panelled facade, looks a bit robotic itself. Paik says her choice of career was also motivated by a desire to create something that would be indispensable in people's everyday lives. She explains that soft robots belong to a 'second generation' of robots that are small and unobtrusive, yet quick to sense and adapt to user needs.

"We want robots that are close to us in our daily lives, without always having to tell them what to do", Paik says. Her dream would be to create a wearable robot to help with back pain – something she herself suffers from. She's not far from her goal. Wearable robotics is a main focus of the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Robotics, of which Paik is an active member. "The best solutions recommended for back pain are often weight loss and doing exercises. But I want to create a next-best solution: something you can wear that reminds you to do exercises, and that helps to stabilise your core".

Passing through the 'dirty' lab, where several doctoral students are hard at work assembling new structures (as opposed to the clean lab, where more sensitive materials testing is done), Paik demonstrates a prototype belt with flexible silicone segments that can soften or stiffen in response to bodily movements.

Healthy balance

With multiple research directions, lab management responsibilities, teaching and tenure review preparations, it's a stressful time for Paik. But she is determined to find a healthy balance to the long working hours – something that she says has been helped by the move to Lausanne, a city rather small compared to where she lived previously.

Born in Canada, Paik studied at the University of British Columbia before spending a work-study year with Mitsubishi in Tokyo. She was then recruited by Samsung to work on anthropomorphic robots in South Korea, and the company ended up funding her PhD in mechanical engineering at the Seoul National University. She then worked as a postdoc in Paris and Boston.

"I have always lived in cities, eating take-out food and never really cooking for myself. So I am trying to adopt the healthier lifestyle of the Swiss! I am enjoying the nature, and good local produce. I like the outdoor markets here in Lausanne", she says. She's even managing to squeeze French lessons into her busy schedule; she already speaks Japanese and Korean in addition to English.

From her international perspective, Paik says that the relatively small network of Swiss research institutions makes her work easier, thanks to the harmonisation of research efforts. "The big names and Ivy League schools in the US make it difficult to be coordinated. Here, because universities are not very numerous or very big, it's easy to be in tune with your colleagues. I travel to ETH Zurich regularly, and I am also close to research in other European countries".

Creativity required

Although her robots take up a great deal of her time, Paik also devotes much of her attention to people, hiring and mentoring lab members and teaching classes. For students interested in a career in robotics, she says the most important thing is a sense of creativity. "When I hire my students I look for people who say they are always making or fixing things and who are resourceful", she says.

As a woman in a historically male-dominated field, Paik hopes that soft robotics research – which involves a lot of unknowns, and requires creative and multidisciplinary solutions – will be interesting to female students. "It's important to encourage young female students early on and stress that it's cool to be good at STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects", she says. "There has been strong support for STEM for girls as young as six in the past decade. It's starting to show its impact on the rising number of female students, and I'm very excited about that".

Celia Luterbacher is a journalist for swissinfo.ch.

Engineering a global career

Canadian-born Jamie Paik, 36, is a tenure- track assistant professor in mechanical engineering and director of the Reconfigurable Robotics Laboratory at EPFL. Having lived in Korea and Japan as a child, she studied at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver before completing a PhD at Seoul National University. Paik completed postdocs at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris and at Harvard University in Boston. She is the co-inventor on several patents for robotics technologies, including a motorised tool for laparoscopic surgery.