Did you always know what you wanted to study robotics or did you at any point consider other career paths? Not at all, of course robotics was always something exciting. But for a long time I was not sure what to study (until a few weeks before starting to study to be precise), I was interested in quite a lot of different topics, ranging from biochemistry, to atmosphere physics, to Computer Science.
How did you end up in research from there? I finally started a degree in Electrical Engineering at ETH Zürich since it seemed to be a very broad curriculum that would enable me to go into many different fields later. During my Master studies I focused on Control Theory and Neurobiology. My Master’s thesis was not in robotics, but I did simulations of human neurons. I got into robotics almost by ‘accident’, by starting a PhD with a certain Prof. Ijspeert, who at this time was a young and upcoming SNF Professor. The reason I got interested in his work was not robotics, but an overlap of a modelling technique that he used for his Salamander models and the stuff I was looking at in my Master’s thesis research (Nonlinear Oscillators!). After my PhD I was once more considering a few different opportunities, some of which had really nothing to do with science and research at all (I was interning as a Paragliding instructor). But, a phone call from LA and finally a Postdoc at USC in Stefan Schaal’s lab, again a chance opportunity, finally sealed my destiny as robotics researcher.
Aside from working on robots for rescue your lab also works in the field of archaeology/palaeontology – is this an interest you’ve always had or something that you “fell” in to? I have always had a very broad interest in many areas of science and human knowledge. In my entire career I have been pursuing very interdisciplinary projects. The project on robot aided paleoanthropology started with a phone call from my friend Radu Iovita (picture below), whom I met at the Santa Fe Complex Systems summer school in 2005 (this school brought together researchers from many different disciplines). He called me up about three years ago, now as a Group Leader at the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz, Germany. He started “Tell me you are deep into robotics now – look we have this problem in paleoanthropology […] do you think robotics could be a way to do address this scientific challenge better?” It did not take him very long to convince me that this could be an exciting and fun challenge to address with robotics.
You are also working on the commentary at the Cybathlon – what attracted you to the event? The Cybathlon shapes up to be a fantastic event, and one can just not say no if you given the opportunity to be part it. But in general I think, the Cybathlon is a great opportunity and showcase for robotics, it gives a very positive spotlight on the hard research work that many teams are doing around the world to improve the quality of human live. I also have a bit of a background in the intersecting field of neuro-science, robotics and medical technology. I thus was happy to seize the opportunity to help shaping the Cybathlon. The work with radio host Alex Oberholzer is great fun and something quite new for me.
What do you think are the greatest challenges for robotics in the future? Most likely robotics will have an even bigger impact on society in the long run than any technology we have seen thus far. While this is a huge opportunity it also comes with big challenges. These challenges are not of a technical nature, but are societal ones and I think some of these will be far bigger than the technical ones.
What advice for those who would like to consider going into robotics research in the future? Only do it if it’s something that truly interests you. Don’t necessarily go head on into robotics but consider doing a somewhat different path first, this lets you bring interesting interdisciplinary insight into robotics.
..and to those who which to follow an academic path? Probably one of the most important drivers for (academic) success is enthusiasm. And enthusiasm can only blossom if you follow a path that truly engages interests and ultimately captivates you. Don’t take a faculty job as one and the only possibly satisfying target in your life, it’s just too uncertain a career path and there are plenty of very interesting jobs out there. However, if opportunities arise, seize them. They will come in unexpected forms and shapes and it sometimes takes good leap of faith to seize them!