About the project «Success Builder»
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
Technology education is just one of the areas that the RAR and its head, Alisa Konyukhovskaya, are engaged in. Thanks to this association, we are gradually ceasing to anthropomorphize robotics and the West is learning more about Russian technologies and supporting the Russian market with investments. Here, Ms Konyukhovskaya tells Success Builder how a philosopher can find her calling in technology, who makes the rules for robots and why study at HSE to learn how to manage innovations.
How did you make the transition from philosophy to technology?
I think it was an organic transition. Philosophy is an extremely broad major. You can do anything because it entails understanding phenomena, processes and historical eras. When I entered the Philosophy Department at Moscow State University, I was already interested in technology and everything connected with the ‘Russia 2045’ movement (a social movement founded by entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov that advocates human development through the integration of modern technologies). What’s more, members of this community constantly discussed futuristic topics, and this gave rise to a community of people — that included philosophers — who were interested in science.
I didn’t know what to major in when I started at Moscow State University. During my second year, I attended the conference of the ‘Russia 2045’ community where I met David Dubrovsky, a professor of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Philosophy. He helped me choose a research subject. I settled on ‘the Internet of things’ and began writing academic articles. I gradually came to the understanding that only doing research was not for me. I wanted something more concrete so that I could change the world and be closer to reality.
In my third year, I attended a talk given by Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov. Afterwards, I approached him and asked, ‘What is our country doing to develop the Internet of things?’ Because of that conversation, I was offered an internship at an affiliated agency for technological development. That experience turned out to be very useful for me: I met colleagues from the Internet Initiatives Development Fund and volunteered at the Innoprom international industrial exhibition where I helped out at the booth of the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade. That was in 2015. Now, the exhibition has become part of my professional growth because I stage major international robotics events at Innoprom.
How did the Russian Association of Robotics first come into your life?
The IFR took part in that very first Innoprom event and proposed setting up a local robotics industry association. Vitaly Nedelsky took on the task. He had noticed my analytical work as an intern at the agency and suggested I become an analyst with RAR. I was 21 years old, was a fourth-year college student and knew nothing at all about robotics. Nevertheless, one year later I had already become the deputy director of the association.
What exactly does the RAR do?
The RAR works to develop the Russian robotics market. It serves as a platform for technology sector representatives to communicate with state and foreign organizations. We also carry out expert and educational tasks in robotics. We gather data about the Russian market, present the results to the IFR, analyse state policies and support measures, conduct events and carry out business missions.
It is incredibly interesting to communicate with developers, to visit factories, laboratories and exhibitions, and to meet scientists and inventors. Now a large network of foreign partners has formed that helps us promote Russian companies. One of the tasks of the RAR is to develop the robotics community through networking, and so we hold informal events as well.
What is the domestic and global market for robotics?
When we started, the robotics market was just forming. Now it consists of two major segments: industrial robotics — that has been operating abroad for 50 years — and the service sector. Industrial robotics includes manufacturing robots as well as those who integrate robotic solutions, the developers of specialised software and components suppliers. We recently created an online course for companies planning to utilise industrial robots that explains how the industrial robotics market works and how to avoid potential pitfalls.
The second market segment includes such fields as logistics, medicine and education. It is still very young and develops very rapidly, both in Russia and around the world. Russian companies have a very good chance of taking a leadership position in the global robotics market. The robotics industry has grown and developed substantially. There are more companies and products and Russia’s influence on the market has grown as well. We help customers find high-quality products in this new market and create favourable conditions for companies that produce robots. Of course, we do not make robots ourselves.
You received a liberal arts education. How have you managed to work at the RAR without a technical background?
Our work consists of information and communication. We convey ideas and form connections between people and organizations. It isn’t that difficult to master the necessary technical vocabulary or to grasp the gist of these processes. Although I might not know the answer to this or that technical question, I do know which specialists can provide a very detailed answer. What’s more, the RAR unites our individual efforts in a single structure, multiplying the result.
Technical knowledge is not required for analysing the robotics market. It is important to be observant and to be able to see how individual facts and events reveal market trends. In our analytical work, we also rely on IFR reports, which has the broadest expertise in market statistics, and we use an international methodology to collect data on the Russian market.
After reading works by Hegel and Kant, the analytical materials of the International Federation of Robotics are a manageable task
It is important for me as an expert to know different countries’ policies on robotics, and HSE University helped me in this regard. While a student, I became acquainted with the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, American and European approaches and figured out which would be most suitable for developing robotics in Russia.
Why did you study innovation at HSE University rather than go to, say, California?
In my third year at MSU, I already knew I wanted to continue my studies at HSE, which had just started taking applications for its Governance of Science, Technology and Innovation English-language master’s programme. I even took a course on critical thinking at Manchester Metropolitan University to see if I could handle studies in English. But it was important for me to remain in Russia because I really love my work and wanted to develop in the context of the Russian technology market. It was also very convenient for me that HSE held these classes in the evenings.
How have those studies influenced your work and your life generally?
The meta-skills I gained from my philosophy studies have helped with my analytical work at the RAR — for example, the ability to process a large volume of information, formulate concepts, think, read, write and speak. The ability to take a philosophical approach to phenomena and to view technology through historical, cultural and social perspectives turned out to be very pertinent.
were installed in industrial enterprises worldwide in 2019е
I went to HSE University for specific things — I needed to gain a deep understanding of the industry and the innovation management field. I was very inspired by lectures from instructors who worked in government agencies and development institutions. I appreciated the experience of internalisation at the academic level — ours was a multinational group and this later helped me develop the international aspect of the RAR. Overall, I would like to receive more practical experience in developing innovations and approaches for implementing them than the programme offers.
In that case, why did you choose a master’s programme at HSE rather than an MBA?
To build up managerial skills, you need sufficient expertise, which is why I chose the master’s programme. This is a very important stage of education. I am thinking now about getting an MBA but, for now, I’ve taken an online programme at MIT on using AI in business that has greatly helped in creating the RAR’s own educational course. I am also gaining teaching experience with an MBA programme that MSU designed for the winners of the Leaders of Russia competition. Most of the lectures focus on innovations in technology and I explain what is happening with the robotics market specifically.
Is there anything lacking in the HSE programme?
Ours was only the third graduating class, so shortcomings were unavoidable, as with any new programme. My classmates were experienced and skilled and had already worked with innovations, so many had high expectations for the course. I was near the bottom of the list in terms of qualifications. The students needed practical knowledge, but the curriculum was based more on definitions and theories. I would have liked more meetings with industry experts and to have gone deeper into the practical realities of managing innovation. We gave our feedback to those running the programme, so I think a lot has already improved.
At what stage did you become head of the RAR?
Because RAR founder Vitaly Nedelsky switched his focus to other projects in 2018, I was already handling all of the association's affairs as the deputy head. The same year, I was named head of the RAR because I had been there at the inception of the project and had a strong understanding of how it should develop. I have developed professionally along with the RAR: it has been like a third full-fledged education. It has grown from a startup into a major international market player with a large number of partners, connections and projects at the level of ministries and development institutions. It has grown not only in size but also in the authority, trust and respect it enjoys from both the Russian and international robotics communities.
Philosophers are often involved in the ethical issues of innovation. Are you involved in this process?
We do not deal with ethics at the RAR because it is too theoretical. Philosophers tend to discuss it in very abstract terms, and at the level of individual companies or in the legal field generally, lawyers deal with the question of how to minimise the risks from technology.
I am more interested in how society is changing under the influence of technology and which factors act as drivers for or barriers to the creation and use of technologies. They fundamentally change society, the way we live, communicate and understand the world around us. For example, the coronavirus epidemic provides a clear example of how we already live at a different technological level, and it has been a catalyst for changes to social institutions.
Sberbank and, in particular, my colleague there, Andrey Neznamov, are actively involved in the legal issues connected with technology. Andrey earlier founded the Robopravo organization and now works at Sberbank as the executive director for AI legal affairs.
It is not ethical issues, but legal questions that are currently slowing the development of AI. This is because you need access to personal data that is protected by law
Fortunately, the development of robotics faces few ethical issues. The barrier is often that people, companies and social institutions are not ready to use new technologies. Robots are largely a cultural phenomenon. Our understanding of robotics comes from the genre of science fiction books and films which is divorced from technological realities.
From a philosophical standpoint, we need to view robotics as a cultural and social phenomenon. For example, there is a negative perception of robotics in modern society. This is due to the semantics of the language and the existing connotation of the word ‘robot’. One hundred years ago, Karel Čapek wrote the play ‘R.U.R.’ in which robots exterminate humanity and throughout the twentieth century, science fiction writers mercilessly exploited the theme of humanity becoming enslaved by its own creation.
It is unsurprising that we have such an enduring fear of robots and AI and of the ‘behaviour’ of technologies that, for some reason, must be anthropomorphic and act like villains or cause economic harm to people. How many times have I heard people say, ‘You’re in robotics? Are you planning to put us all out of work?”
The media is one of the main ways this superstition is spread, and we at RAR do an enormous amount of work simply educating journalists and, indeed, all people, about robotics. It’s time to stop fearing robots — we live in a world that they are creating. For example, robots are used in the production of all modern smartphones and cars. The RAR sets out to change society's attitude towards robots. Robots pose no threat to humanity. They improve working conditions and the quality of life, help make companies more competitive and create better jobs — not eliminate them.