My Reddit AMA - Education and Learning Questions

On 23rd February 2020, I took part in a Reddit AMA which spanned across the main r/IAmA sub-reddit as well as r/robotics and r/sciencefitction. I received a great response and some really interesting questions around robotics, AI and science fiction, but just in case you missed it, here are some of the questions based around education and learning within AI and robotics.

Q. Hello, thank you so much for doing this. I am currently a high school senior in Nepal, and would really like to get into AI and robotics. Currently, I have been accepted into colleges in Germany and the US for my undergrad, and I just wanted to ask what the research environment is like in these countries. If you had to choose to go to one place based on what regular work in the industry is like, and what the research environment is like, which would you choose?

A. For undergrad, I think both are great and evenly divided. I do know in the US that there are many programs for undergraduate research and professors like having undergraduates who are willing to start out by just helping keep the lab clean and robots charged.

Q. Hi professor, I teach a robotics class to middle school students. This year I am giving my tired line-following curriculum a break and implementing a disaster response scenario. Where this unit will be different is that I am giving students free reign to design arm attachments for LEGO Mindstorm. They will be sorting through foam rubble looking for color coded LEGO minifigs. Would you have any suggestions about real world objectives that would be appropriate for this platform/age group? Many thanks!

A. Very cool!

We typically use manipulation in two ways- 1) either to poke or prod something to see if it is hard (e.g., a rock) or soft (e.g., maybe a person covered in grey sheetrock/concrete dust) or 2) close a door or valve- like in a mine disaster or Fukushima. Normally rubble is too hard to move for a little robot that can get into tight places. And you don't want to try to move anyone because of possible spine damage, so you wait until they can excavate enough to reach the person and better assess their condition.

If they are looking for a victim, it is also helpful to look for clothing or lunch pails or hardhats or anything that would have been close to the person at the time of the collapse.

In terms of technical objectives, if they could use any of the computer vision systems for Legos out there, that'd be great. Computer vision for color detection of bright colors is actually pretty easy- it doesn't require deep learning or anything complicated. Insects and animals use very simple stimulus-response behaviors using cues like color.

I hope they have a great experience (and you too! when in doubt use white glue to glue the d***ed pieces together for the duration of the project so they can get to programming versus just reassembling...)

Q. I am finishing my bachelor’s degree at a UK London university in Mechanical Engineering. On track for a first, my major project is building a robotic hand/arm and modifying/evaluating it for prosthetic use. I did a placement year as a development engineer at an aerospace company.

To work on my coding side, I am taking a year off to spend quality time with my family back in Canada and doing some bootcamps/personal projects.

I would like to go do a masters of robotics in America and worried I won't be qualified enough to get into one. Preferably John Hopkins/California (for networking).

My interested field is medical robotics, specifically neuroprosthetics (Kernal, Neuralink). I am also interested in using AI for satellites. Such as setting up a worldwide satellite network for immediate response firefighting. I think if a well engineering constellation is in place and there are funded fire departments, forest fires could be managed indefinitely.

Do you have any words of advice/comfort for a budding engineer?

A. Wow- prosthetics, very impressive! Besides never underestimate yourself, my words of advice are twofold.

One is to look at the post about applying for a PhD, not a MS. In the US, priority is given to PhD applicants, not MS (even though we know some of the applicants just want to get the MS and are playing a game. We're playing a game that they will love it and want to stay).

Two, think carefully about grad school as a guild or House- you want to choose what fits you personally and professionally not what looks good. Which means researching the different professors. Then reach out to them. Oh, don't do the "you are my favorite professor and I want to work with you on X" form letter. We professors talk. One year a student had written that to three of us in our department- we were each the favorite, our topics were the one they had wanted to work on since forever, etc. None of us accepted the student. If they had written that each of us was one of three that they were really interested in, that would have been fine. Typically, students spend a year finding/changing professors when they get to a program.

Q. Thank you for the reply, sorry to ask another question but what you said has caught me off guard.

The problem with that whole PhD thing is I don't want to be buried in debt. I would mostly prefer to do a masters, go into industry to build onto my savings, and get them to pay for my PhD. One of my professors also recommended me a PhD as I will need to know the political landscape & plans of action for research for my plan.