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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.

My plan is to help neuroprosthetics develop to a point where I can create a field of research around controlling/seeing into dreams for psychological research, entertainment, and to treat medical conditions related to the sleeping process or trauma. I can't commit fully to academia, I must learn of it and industry/business in depth to navigate to this reality.

Will I really be disregarded so much if I apply to MS instead of PhD?


Really. I'm not making this up. Graduate school in AI and robotics is an apprentice program- so we pay YOU to be a research assistant on our projects. You might have to be a teaching assistant at first until you find the right project, but you still get tuition, most fees, and a stipend. The department will admit you as a TA or a RA with usually with a 3-year contract- your PhD might take longer but by then you'll be on a project or the next project so the professor can pay you.

In addition, prestigious fellowships are merit-based, not based on financial aid.

We let people pay for grad school but generally we don't take those students seriously because they aren't embedded into a project with a professor and other students or because they aren't working as a TA with professor, no one knows them and they aren't around to take advantage of famous researchers stopping by or the sorts of "pop up" activities and talks that happen at a university.

If a university does not offer you a TA or RA for at least two years, then sigh sadly and go to the one that does.

Sure, it could be like one of those football movies where the scrappy under-rated person manages to walk on to the college football team and be a player after all, but that's not the way to bet. If a department didn't offer you funding, then no one thinks you're really going to do well there. So, don't take the chance. You have big dreams and I want you to succeed!

And big-name schools and professors only count for so much. If you're not that professor's top 3-5 people (a lot of us have 8-15 students, some learning people have 35), you aren't going to get much attention or opportunities. If you don't work hard to be in the 3-5 top students, then the benefits are small. You'd be better off with a less famous professor or a lower ranked university that you can really get the training and experience you need and who will be your advocate.

The only time when a grad student should consider paying for a semester of their tuition and time is if they ran late on a thesis deadline and have started work but needed to take 3 hours to be listed as enrolled in the university to graduate. A professor usually can't charge that to a grant because you are working somewhere else, not on research- fair enough. And that this is a small amount of money and you have a job.

Industry is unlikely to give you the time off to go back to school. They can just hire someone else. And doing a graduate degree is a full-time job otherwise you are just taking classes and not apprenticing.

Also, your argument is like saying: I want to be a top medical researcher but rather than get a medical degree, I will get a physician's assistant degree, then work for a hospital and then they will pay me or give me time off to a get a medical degree since I will be working almost like a doctor. It is going to be extremely hard to do great work without having the huge amount of knowledge and experience it takes to do great work in AI and robotics.

Plus, investors favor companies started by PhDs not MS, in part because they know PhDs are more knowledgeable. MS tend to be hard workers but not as creative and broad thinking as PhDs are trained to be. So you'd rather have a hard working PhD to start a company who could pivot than a hard working MS. Look more closely at the medical start-ups (ignore Theranos)- you'll see that the majority are either started by newly minted PhDs or by professors with PhDs.

So please reconsider. And remember, you can always quit your PhD with your MS! But don't pay for a MS or a PhD!

Q. As someone with an interest in robotics and AI, how do I start to learn more?

A. My hopefully not-too-gratuitous recommendation is to read my two Robotics Through Science Fiction books (Robotics Through Science Fiction: Artificial Intelligence Explained Through Six Classic Robot Short Stories and Learn AI and Human-Robot Interaction Through Asimov’s I, Robot Stories see - I wrote them to try to make AI robotics accessible to people with a general interest in science yet not dumb down the material to the point that it couldn’t be used as an introductory text. I sincerely hope that they will be useful to people like you. I also recommend Rebooting AI. Any books that is about the dangers of AI is probably written by non-AI experts with an axe to grind and most are just plain wrong or off-base.

Q. Hi! Im Russian. I am a student of grade 11. Can you advise me a good university with the faculty of mechatronics of robotics in USA, or another in America?

A. Many universities have excellent mechatronics programs. Each is different. Going to graduate school is like joining a guild or a House at Hogwarts- you match it to what skills you want and your personality.

One strategy is to read papers on mechatronics and see what papers and projects interest you- then notice what university the authors are from (or going to, as the work that fascinates may be by a grad student who is graduating and becoming a professor at a different university and would be more likely to continue the work).

Then dive deeper into that person's papers and send email asking a technical question and also about the possibility of graduate school.

As a professor, one of the most annoying things is to get emails saying "I love your work, I want to do X under your direction." But if they had read my book and papers, they'd know I specialize in human-robot interaction to determine what type of AI (computer vision, reasoning, planning, etc.) is needed to assist with disasters and then adding the AI, not building platforms or control theory or whatever X is.

Hope this helps!! And see the similar posts in this thread!

Q. What side projects do you recommend for undergrads wanting to get into this field.

I recommend finding a professor to work with in your department- that gives you both experience at a "real" project and someone who can write you a great letter of recommendation for graduate school.

A. AI robotics is a lot like medicine- it requires more work than can be done as an undergrad. You can get a starter job without a graduate degree, but you are unlikely to get promoted to surgeon.

But back to projects... if you're looking at AI robotics, which is software oriented, doing projects with programming contests (we just did one) or reimplementing a computer vision algorithm in OpenCV in a different language or something like that is useful. I get a lot of students who write to me saying that they build a maze following robot that works great in their room- which is a high school project. Or I get students who have created their own deep learning system for something and a) it doesn't actually use deep learning, b) is a terribly trivial or uninteresting idea, or c) doesn't work because they didn't test it in any meaningful way (as in, like in physics or chemistry class). I'd prefer to see someone who has read a scientific paper that did something interesting, implemented the algorithm, and duplicated the results even it didn't run on an actual (expensive) robot.

You can always ping me for software projects for disaster response.

If you're looking at hardware, I think you really need to get with a professor because that requires a lot of money and tools ;-)

Q. I’m a recent mech eng (under)grad and considering a graduate degree in robotics engineering. I'm particularly interested in the nexus between reinforcement learning and robotic control?

A: Sure. There’s a lot of work in that area, very cool. Keep in mind that we had a lot of interest back in the mid-1990s, then interest died off, and then again about 5 years ago it re-emerged. You may be catching it as it the interest in new innovations in RL for robotics fades again. R&D goes in cycles- a topic get a breakthrough, everyone mines it, then runs into problems taking it to the next level or incorporating into a larger system, and then wanders off to new problems and techniques elsewhere. Then about 14-20 years later, someone re-examines the topic, makes a breakthrough, and the cycle begins anew. Of course, some people stay with the topic through thick and thin and some companies keep the investment in applications of the topic, but not in research.

So, if you are interested in longevity in the field of robotics and AI, I recommend trying to be as broad as you can be so that you can specialize in RL now but move around if needed or desired.

Q. Hey there, I’m a mechanical engineer (mars rover stuff) doing robotics, but have stayed away from the software and electronics side for most of my career. I’ve taught myself some Python over the years too.

What’s a good way to bridge the gap going from mechanisms and a limited software experience, to being able to do end-to-end robotic systems? Another programming language to learn? A specific software package? Particular components for drive electronics to understand?

A. Seriously, I would focus on learning computing (not a language, but a field) and artificial intelligence for robotics. Languages go in and out of vogue, ditto with packages and hardware. What is rare is the person who really understands mechanisms, controls, and artificial intelligence- I would see that as the big way to get a head.

At the risk of gratuitous self-promotion, I'd recommend reading my book Robotics Through Science Fiction: Artificial Intelligence Explained Through Six Classic Robot Short Stories (I wrote it as an introductory text for people with a general interest in science using Asimov, Vinge, Dick, and Aldiss stories to help illustrate the barrage of vocabulary used in AI) and see if the AI approach and concepts resonate- and which ones. Then you decide where to go from there.

Q. What are the best courses to study to get into robotics and at what colleges?

A. Think of robotics as like a combination of med school and where you do your medical residency or like an MBA. There are some big-name places but there are also places you pick because of your specific interests. The biggest name place in robotics is Carnegie Mellon which is great, sort of the Harvard Medical School. But if you are interested in behavioral robotics, you’d probably want to go to Georgia Tech, or if you wanted to work in search and rescue, you’d want to come to Texas A&M or Tokoyu University in Japan. Just like if you were doing an MBA, you’d get a different perspective if you went to Harvard, Sloan, Wharton, Chicago, etc.

The “best courses” is tricky because there’s the pre-requisite/vocation training courses that you need for entry into a degree program and then there’s the other courses that make you successful as “you.” If you’re going to do robotics, you’re going to go into an engineering or computer science program. So that’s a lot of math and physical sciences. If you’re going to go into AI robotics, you really need a lot of computer science- not just programming, but actually understanding algorithms, data structures, software engineering, etc. My undergrad is in mechanical engineering and so I know first-hand that engineering doesn’t cover enough computing for people who want to excel in AI (as opposed to just one area of AI).

But take interesting courses too! The course I took in anthropology which had no practical purpose except it seemed interesting turned out to be pivotal 20 years later as my work began to pioneer ethnography for what is now known as human-robot interaction. If I had taken only “relevant” courses, I would have never taken it and I would not have known about those methods or even the value of trying to capture observations about how people were actually using robots during disasters.

See the other two summaries of my AMAs with questions on robotics, AI and scifi and some of the more random questions.

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