Les Nouvelles

It has been a while since my last post – been busy with a slew of personal and professional obligations. In any case, mieux vaut tard que jamais. I thought I should start the year’s blogging with a summary of what is going on – things that will keep me busy in the coming months.

The year began well with notification that we have three papers at ICRA 2010. There are also a few more papers currently under review and in prep. All of this is shaping up to address a couple of major themes – how can an autonomous agent concisely summarize its understanding of a continually changing world, involving potentially infinite variability, with a view towards solving interesting decision making tasks? Moreover, given that information is limited and expensive, how can partial views be assimilated into a coherent whole and how can action be decentralized? We’re looking at these questions in two quite different contexts – humanoid robotics (dexterous manipulation, robust full body motion/locomotion) and quantitative finance (handling regime shifts, combining flexible data-driven models with traditional analytical approaches). I am looking forward to finding out where all this takes us – us being a growing team of PhD/MSc students, a research visitor, a couple of Nao robots, etc.

This semester will also see the inauguration of my role as co-PI in an EPSRC project. Looking forward to seeing where we can take that. Projects like this make me think more carefully about how the conceptual ideas at the level of individual papers lead to the larger goal – tangibly intelligent autonomous robots. There is certainly a lot more to be done…

Meanwhile, one of my PhD students, Tom Larkworthy, is busy trying to commercialize some of his robotics ideas. Along with another collaborator, he is setting out to create a robotics company around the idea of modular robotics. He has already received a bit of seed funding (from iDEAlab and ERI) to support him while he scopes out the idea and then it will be time for the real plunge. I am involved in an advisory role on his funding applications, but this is really his baby (with all of us well wishers standing by at the launch)! Watch out for them – Spectral Robotics is the name of the enterprise.

Speaking of things outside the core research domain, we (Sethu Vijayakumar, Taku Komura and myself) will be giving a talk at the Edinburgh International Science Festival entitled ‘The Road to RoboCup‘ in which we will summarize a set of ideas/results involving data-driven learning from human motion capture, synthesizing humanoid robot behaviours and teaching teams of robots to make strategic decisions in a multi-agent setting. The title is intended to emphasize my aspiration to set up what may be (to the best of my knowledge) UK’s first entry in the RoboCup Standard Platform League, perhaps by the 2011 version of these competitions. Wish us luck, because we’re going to need lots of it!

On a different note, I will be organizing a conference in the summer – ACM-BCS Visions of Computer Science 2010. We have some very distinguished plenary speakers and I am sure the contributed talks will round out the programme very well.

By now, the observant reader should be wondering why I didn’t mention teaching yet. Well, it’s because that is the one area where I feel things are somewhat settled and predictable. I’ve structured my teaching into a 2-semester sequence involving sequential decision making: Reinforcement Learning in a first semester, followed by a more sophisticated look at optimal control and other related concepts in my course entitled Structure and Synthesis of Robot Motion. RL has been a lot easier to teach than SSRM, mainly because there is no single book that quite does the job for the latter (although I must say that Steve LaValle and Howie Choset et al. have done a very good job of summarizing a good chunk of the field). I’ve occasionally toyed with the idea of putting together my own lecture notes (more than just slides and assorted handouts), to fill the gaps and tell a coherent story. However, in the middle of all of the other things, that can quickly seem like a tall order 🙂

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