Meetings with Remarkable Men and Women: Marita Cheng, Founder of Robogals
From a young age, Marita Cheng learned about giving back to the community and getting used to rejection. Because of her hard-working single mother, Marita was involved with many volunteer fundraising efforts that led to knocking on doors and being turned down. This experience made Marita fearless. This trait would serve her well as she grew up to become a leader in the robotics industry and an inspiration for young female engineers around the world.
Naughty & Nice
Like many kids, Marita didn’t always behave. However, her crimes were fueled by her hunger for reading. After finishing Emily Rodda’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Marita would go to the library and “devour books.” She’d lock herself in her bathroom, the only room with a lock, and spend hours on end pouring over everything from The Babysitter’s Club to Agatha Christie. During a parent/teacher conference, her mother remarked that Marita didn’t help around the house...“she’s so naughty, she just reads.”
It was when Marita read a certain issue of Time magazine that she was inspired to do something different. This issue featured the creators of Google and Apple. She saw something familiar in these young entrepreneurs. They had an idea for changing the world and were not going to let anything stop them—not even a lack of money or education. They had an idea and they simply pursued it, letting their passion push them forward.
Marita had the same passion. It started at engineering camp. She discovered that math and science were like a universal language, creating advancements for people all over the world, and she wanted to become fluent enough to make a difference. Even though she was going against her mother’s wishes of pursuing a career in medicine (naughty girl), she decided to follow her instincts.
Where are the Women?
While Marita may have been following her own dreams, she soon realized that she was one of the few females in her classes. When the opportunity arose to teach robotics to a class full of girls, not only was Marita on-board, but she recruited her friends to help her teach workshops across Australia. She hoped these experiences would only continue to grow and inspire, but she was met with disappointment when attendance at robotics events in London were low. But remember, Marita is used to rejection. Her persistence paid off and resulted in the world’s largest robot dance to promote Robogals. Not only was this a lesson in dusting yourself off and trying again, but it was a big step in raising awareness, inspiration, and motivation for girls to join the engineering field.
Now, RoboGals conferences happen all over the world with 30 chapters in 13 countries and thousands of girls participating. Girls are learning how robots can be used for everything from improving environmental issues to making medical advancements. These young engineers are also learning how to work with each other across cultures and disciplines, which is another benefit of bringing such a diverse group together.
Where Are They Now?
Marita shared some of the robotics projects she’s working on. The Aipoly vision app helps the blind navigate the world. All they have to do is point their smartphone at an object and the audio program says what the object is—pointing out various details like color—all with no internet connection required. This sparked a discussion about the other environments where it could be used, here are a few responses:
- Classifying objects in space
- Underwater exploration
Another project involves remote robots that measure the brain activity of the user. Yes, someone can control the robot with their mind from anywhere in the world. Users were able to move a robotic arm and roll through an area they weren’t physically in. It’s specifically designed to help those with disabilities open doors, sign their name, and perform other useful motor functions.
The Future of Robotics
Marita believes a lot of work can still be done to help those with disabilities and in elder care. More innovation in social robots can offer comfort and company to those in need. Advancements in artificial intelligence mean these devices will be able to communicate at a higher level and work in a wider range of industries, from factories and construction to commercial and food service. We may even see more robots in the home helping with chores, dishes, and cooking. While robots are expensive, Marita is working towards affordable solutions for worthy causes.
With all she’s accomplished so far, it’s not wonder Marita was named one of Forbes World’s Top 50 Women in Tech and the youngest Member of the Order of Australia. As the founder of Robogals and the CEO of Aubot, Ms Cheng not only develops advanced robotics, but she also inspires girls to seek out engineering careers, all while proving there are no limits for what one can achieve. To sum up this meeting with one remarkable woman, we’ll leave you with a quote from her mother: “I can’t teach you everything, but I just want you to be exposed to lots of different ideas and ways of thinking, and whatever you do, bring all of those ideas to whatever you're passionate about and want to contribute to the world.”
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