Living in the Athens of the North! – Readers Letter

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Living in the Athens of the North! - Readers LetterReaders Letter – “My name is Michael Camilleri I am From Nadur, Gozo and I recently graduated with a Master’s Degree from the University of Edinburgh. I was supported in this course by the STEPS scholarship scheme. As per its contract, I am required to publish an account of my experience in the local maltese media.

Having finished my undergraduate course in Information and Computer Technology from the University of Malta I decided to take on another challenge in my academic life. I was always interested in the emerging field of Machine Learning, especially applied to robotic applications. Supported by the STEPS scholarship scheme (which is part-financed by the European Union – European Social Fund under Operational Programme II – Cohesion Policy 2007-2013, “Empowering People for More Jobs and a Better Quality of Life”.),

I applied to the University of Edinburgh and University College London, both of which take top ranks in many world-wide ranking schemes. You can understand my elation when I received acceptance into both their ranks. The decision on which offer to accept was not a trivial one, but in the end, the decision fell on Edinburgh, not only because of its slightly better standing in the area but also due to the charm that the city has to offer.

The University itself has served as the alma mater of many a famous scholar: Alexander Graham Bell, James Clarke Maxwell, Charles Darwin, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and recently Peter Higgs are some of the more famous names associated with the institution. It was my turn, albeit in humbler circumstances, to join the list of people who passed through its doors.

The university truly lives to is expectation, with the range of courses offered and the quality of the teaching. The courses themselves are very well organised, with a fair share of both theoretical and applied material.

In line with my personal interests, I focused on a number of courses in the areas of Robotics and Probabilistic Machine learning, which are themselves two strong points of the university and also very sought after specialisations in today’s data-driven world. Indeed, it is likely that while you are reading this article you have come in contact with an ‘intelligent’ device: from smart-phones to cars, everything has a brain so to speak.

The courses offered, covered such techniques as Probabilistic Graphical Models, Probabilistic inference, Time-Series modelling, Reinforcement Learning, Intelligent Agent modelling and Decision Making, together with a number of learning schemes. On the Robotics side, courses focused on Path Planning, Machine Vision, Compliant Motion Control, Stochastic Optimal Control and Learning Methods for Robotics.

In additional to the thought content, the university is renowned for the level of its research, a skill imparted to its students through numerous projects. Perhaps my favourite (although it cost me many a sleepless night) would be the one in the first semester, where in teams of two, we had to construct an autonomous robot capable of navigating a cluttered environment, collecting resources and delivering them back to a home base.

Of course, I must not fail to mention my dissertation itself, which gave me the chance to contribute to one of the most prestigious world-wide challenges in intelligent robotics: the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Organised by the US agency (DARPA), the current version focuses on the development of autonomous robotic systems for disaster recovery situations.

The focus, inspired by the sluggish response of robots to the Fukushima Disaster, is to develop robots which can navigate man-made environments, operate human tools and do so with minimal intervention by a non-expert operator. In this scenario, humanoid robots tend to take center-stage.

This however comes at a cost: the challenges in dealing with uncertain and possibly changing environments presents one of the most difficult problems faced by robotics experts today. In collaboration with another team at Hong Kong.

I was involved in implementing full-body locomotion for the ATLAS robot through crawling. Our team ranked ninth in the virtual qualification challenge, and also participated in the DRC trials last December.

On the more social aspect of things, Edinburgh presented itself as really my kind of city. It is neither too busy that it distracts one from studies (apart from during the Edinburgh festival that is, when the city turns into a month-long party!) and nor too quiet to be dreary. I connected immediately with the populace who are a very friendly folk, eager to welcome foreigners.

The city is famous for its beautiful architecture and astounding character. I can understand now, why the city deserves the title bestowed on it of ‘Athens of the North’!

I must say the decision to come here is one I will surely never regret. In unison with the Scottish national poet, Robert Burns I feel obliged to call ‘Edina! Scotia’s darling seat!”

Michael Camilleri,

Nadur,

Gozo.

Photographs – The autonomous Resource Identification and COllection robot (RICO) developed in the first semester by the author – The author together with the ATLAS robot used in the DARPA Robotics Challenge and: The DARPA Robotics Team at Hong Kong University (author centre front kneeling).

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