At the age of 19, Martin accompanied his then girlfriend, who had secured an au pair
job in Plymouth, England. At their arrival, she was picked up by her family; Martin, having no place to go, instead spent the night on a bench. He spoke little
English so it took him a while to find a job but he eventually found one in a
fish processing factory. Three months of hard work later, something happened that
changed the young man’s life forever. It was the evening of Martin’s twentieth birthday
when he struck up a conversation with a man on the street with which he started
discussing astronomy. Struck by Martin’s knowledge and personality, the stranger
– who was a professor of Biological Sciences – asked him why he did not consider going to University. “I began to think that maybe I could study
in the day and fund myself by working at night, so I went back to Slovakia to
complete my civil service and started to learn English.“ A year later,
with a reference from that same professor, Martin applied to study computer
science in Plymouth. He got accepted and his tough dual life began; studying
during the day, working throughout the night. In his last year of studies,
Martin worked on a project that would again drastically impact his career. He
developed a program that simulated the artificial evolution of neural network
controllers for Mars rovers, and presented a paper on it at the ASTRA European
Space Agency conference. His outstanding work led to an official collaboration between
his University and ESA. Martin was consequently offered the opportunity to
undertake a cognitive robotics PhD at the University of Plymouth which he went
on to happily accept. In 2012, he managed to secure himself an internship at the
headquarters of the prestigious semiconductor manufacturer NVIDIA which helped
him to further expand his knowledge.
Today, Martin is finishing his PhD. His work ethic and exceptional networking skills are propelling him to interesting projects across the globe. Martin never
forgot where his passion for astronomy took him; he now believes that anything
is possible and continues to aim for the stars.
Why did you agree to become an Amazer?
amazers.org is going to inspire people worldwide by featuring interesting life stories of people who pursued their dreams and succeeded. People have great potential and can do amazing things but sometimes they lack courage, motivation or perseverance. I really wish that my life story will inspire countless people across many countries because I keep telling myself and others: If I can do it, anybody can. Inspiration is a starting point that gives our dreams a flavor. Once we get inspired then we need to truly believe that we deserve all the best for ourselves because if we don't, we will undermine our own efforts and take away the momentum that can get us through difficult times. On top of all that, we need to put enough energy in our dreams by being persistent. Dreaming big is great, acting big is amazing! I am proud to be part of amazers.org because I can reach out to many people and make a positive impact.
So what does a cognitive robotics researcher do? What are you currently working on?
Cognitive robotics lies at the intersection of cognition and robotics and it's all about doing robotics dealing with cognitive phenomena such as perception, attention, anticipation, planning, memory, learning, and reasoning. I have been fascinated by this subject ever since I was a kid and now I am doing research using iCub, one of the most advanced humanoid robots in the world. I have developed a software architecture for cognitive robotics called Aquila, which I now use to develop biologically inspired systems for actions and language acquisition.
What kind of role do you think robots will be playing in our society in the next 10, 20, or 50 years?
Robots are already playing an essential part in our lives. Whether it's for industrial mass-production, hi-precision surgical equipment, mobile robots for terrestrial and planetary exploration, robots are able to do jobs that are not possible or feasible for human beings. Some of these robots will have a certain degree of autonomy, which allows them to make certain decisions for themselves. This is great for specific, well-defined tasks. However, we have still a lot of work to develop machines that are capable of learning, reasoning and acting in real-world environments. Having said that, I think that we're on the right track and making great progress! This is not only because our field involves collaboration with researchers from multiple disciplines (e.g. computer science, neuroscience, developmental psychology, linguistics, etc.) but also because of the recent advancements in supercomputing. For example, we have started developing hybrid-heterogeneous software that compute complex artificial neural networks on massively parallel GPU processors, which are inherently more powerful than standard CPU processors when it comes to parallel data processing (video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P28LKWTzrI). Thanks to NVIDIA GPU hardware and CUDA programming model we are now able to conduct novel experiments that were not previously feasible due to computational limits. Way too many people have made predictions about robotics and artificial intelligence that nowadays sound so funny that I would not like to make the same mistake. Our team has projects that are developing robots that help children in hospitals (see ALIZ-E FP7 project), elderly people (see ROBOT-ERA FP7 project) and we have other projects that bring together the most outstanding scientists from all around the world to develop robots capable of learning and understanding actions and language (see Poeticon++ FP7). I have to add that this is not solely about developing intelligent robots, it is also about understanding ourselves and how we acquire motor and cognitive skills, which is very interesting in itself! I expect that in the years to come we will see more of this work being applied in real-world scenarios. Technological and scientific progress accelerate with an ever increasing pace. In addition to this, sudden paradigm shifts are likely to occur, which makes the future progress of cognitive robotics rather unpredictable. Therefore, I prefer not to focus on predicting the future but rather on helping create it!