Sun, 11 May 2003

Talented robot makers fear unemployment

Zakki Hakim, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

How many youngsters do you know who are capable of building an automatic robot that can find its own way towards a preset goal, reach three baskets suspended from scaffolds and throw balls into all three with unerring precision?

That's one automatic robot. Now, try making another two, plus a manually operated one that can shoot balls into the baskets from a distance after first picking them up from the floor. And all that on a limited budget of only Rp 4 million (approximately US$464).

Sounds hard?

Last week 32 teams of youngsters from all over the country proved it can be done, with one team coming out of the contest as the best of them all. They are living proof that Indonesian youngsters, too, given the chance, are capable of making such sophisticated machines and should be considered as among the country's finest assets.

However, although building a robot may be nothing out of the ordinary to them, getting a job is not as simple. At least that is what Hasan Habibi said.

Habibi is a member of the winning team in the 2003 Indonesian Robot Competition held in Jakarta last week. His team's robot was named A.I.sya, or Mobile Artificial Intelligence -- and sya meaning mobile in Japanese. Although he and his teammates, as last week's contest winners, are entitled to represent Indonesia in the Asia-Pacific Robot Competition in Bangkok this coming August, he is not so sure about his future.

"Winning a robot competition does not mean it will be easy for me to get a job after I graduate," the 20-year-old student said. He said he took part in the competition with no real goal in mind, but just to fill his spare time and for the mere fun of it. He admitted, nevertheless, that his preference for spending his time with high-tech tidbits was unusual. In Surabaya, where he lives, however, such a hobby is popular and considered quite prestigious.

That is no wonder, because the annual robot competition has been held in the East Java provincial capital since it started four years ago, and Habibi's alma mater, Polyteknik Sepuluh November Institute of Technology (ITS) is the city's champion on such matters. Teams from ITS have won competitions for four years in a row, and in 2001 they also won an International Robot Competition in Japan.

Habibi said that to become a winner and follow in his predecessor's footsteps was not easy, because building a robot requires hard work and, most of all, solid teamwork. He was grateful that his team was solid and all his mates were devoted to their work. So devoted, in fact, that one of the members had to be hospitalized for four days because of dehydration.

Building A.I.sya on a limited budget was a unique challenge that involved, among other things, finding affordable parts and materials even before the robot could be designed, he said. Given that particular obstacle, days before the competition started they still had no viable fixed design, so they made a flexible one.

That limitation, however, turned out to be an advantage because they had found a design that allowed modification right up to the minute before the match. As a result, A.I.sya became the winner.

Habibi said that the competition would attract more participants if the prize had been, for example, a job with a good company.

"I believe that such a prize would lure more youngsters to participate in the competition, especially those who are smarter than I do," he said. There are many students smarter than he is, he said, but they passed the opportunity to join the competition because they were all concentrating on find a job immediately after graduation.

Dadet Pramadihanto, coach of the winning team, told The Jakarta Post that such a competition was very important because it showed the public the real potential of Indonesia's human resources.

"Industrialists can see, through this competition, that Indonesian youngsters are capable of designing complicated robots that prove to be even better than those designed by foreign students," he said, referring to the championships of 2001, when a team from the same Surabaya institute won the International Robot Competition in Koriyama, Japan, organized by NHK TV station. The winning robot in that competition was called "B- Cak".

Dadet said that greater attention for such competitions was needed from all parties involved, including the government, industrialists and the public, in order to promote creativity among Indonesian youngsters and to reach even better accomplishments in the future.

"This competition definitely boosts the creativity of students," he said. At the end of the day, such competitions would raise the bargaining power of the students in applying for jobs.

Kadek, a participant from Banjarmasin State Polytechnic, South Kalimantan, agreed with Dadet saying that being a contestant would increase his chances of finding a job. Furthermore, he hoped that some industrialists could see the performance of his team's "product" and that it would inspire them to ask the team to make robots for their respective companies.

"We have proved ourselves to possess an ability to build robots that are as good as those of our colleagues in Java," said Kadek, whose team's robot, B-Kantan, won a prize for Best Design last week.

Meanwhile, Arkhadi Pustaka, a member of the runner-up team from Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta, said that his team's motivation was more to encourage his younger classmates to participate in the competition next year.

"This is the first time UGM has participated. We have no target so far. It's a hobby and we basically did it just for fun and ultimately it make be a fine line in our curriculum vitae," he said.

At least that was what they can say for now as students. However, one of the "B-Cak" designers, a humble young man named Eko Henfri, who has just graduated from the D-4 diploma program at ITS, told the Post that he was currently considering to apply for a job.

Anyone interested in employing such a fine national asset? The government, maybe?