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Preparing for a Career in Robotics? 63

seanfast asks: "I just graduated from college with a B.S. in CompSci and a specialization in Artificial Intelligence. I am currently working full time, but I want to go back to school part time for my M.S. and specialize in AI or Robotics. Unfortunately, with my time schedule, and the extreme scarcity of a degree with either of those specializations being in my vicinity, I will most likely have to settle simply for a M.S. in CompSci with no specialization. If I want to work in the field of robotics and AI later on in life, what do I need to do in my current situation to prepare myself? Some have told me I need a strong mechanical engineering background, some have said I need a stronger software background, and some say I need to just tinker with stuff in my free time and not even worry about what they can teach you in school. Any advice, Slashdot?"
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Preparing for a Career in Robotics?

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  • Post jokes about welcoming overlords here. Thank you.
    • by iridium_ionizer ( 790600 ) * on Saturday July 01, 2006 @11:53PM (#15644481)
      Build a giant killer robot. It may sound stupid, but the economics are totally there - people are willing to pay to avoid death. Right now though, you need to hit the books. Keep in mind that the robot needs to be able to withstand or avoid high energy military weapons: artilery, daisy cutters, lasers, and kinetic energy weapons. Don't worry about tactical nukes as long as you keep your robot on U.S. soil no president would dare use one: that would be political suicide. You will probably have to worry about corrosive chemical weapons: strong acids and oxidizers.

      To have your robot withstand such destructive weapons you will have to study up on material science. Your robots exterior metals, plastics, and composites need to be top notch. You may want to create an cooling system for the electronic guts, but it may have to shut off and close vents when your robot is under attack. Stealth when not in populated areas, ordinance avoidance, and counter-measures should also be considered.

      For AI your giant killer robot needs to be able to kill people, but it also needs to be able to collect protection money, and identify those who have paid protection money. Your urban navigation system needs to be able to avoid obstacles even while chasing down people who refuse to pay. Nothing says "don't pay me" like a giant toppled robot that can't get up. The most essential AI/mechanical problem may in fact be carrying customers to the nearest ATM machine without crushing them, but also without letting them escape.

      Now for the economics. You really need to experimental with multiple business models once your robot is up and running - then see which is the most profitable. Maybe the most profits are in hanging around high income neighborhoods. Maybe a Paypal fund for an entire city - kind of like a telethon (once you reach $1 million no one in Des Moines will be killed). Remember though that once you hit a certain price people will be more likely to flee than pay - you may want to fund a phone survey to determine prices prior to operating in a certain location. Consider advertising - people unfamiliar with your product will flee with instinctual terror until they are aware of the commercial options.
      • Maybe a Paypal fund for an entire city - kind of like a telethon (once you reach $1 million no one in Des Moines will be killed).

        I prefer the converse. For 1 Billion dollars (I dream bigger) You'll take care of the middle east problem. For 1 Million dollars, you'll make sure that the cubs win the world series, no questions ask. For 1 Thousand dollars, that annoying dog that barks outside your window will get a free trip to at least 5 layers of atmosphere.

        Remember, with my unique version, it's not terror
  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday July 01, 2006 @06:58PM (#15643814) Journal
    Any advice, Slashdot?
    Well, I try not to talk about this subject unless someone brings it up. You brought it up so sit back and listen.

    I can't give you advice on how to get into robotics because I never successfully did that. I worked with pioneer robots mounted with laptops and had the whole Aria package figured out. I studied all the white papers and took all the courses. I'm even getting my masters with a specialization in AI. What was my problem? I'm not sure, it was probably the fact that my grades were ~3.5 GPA out of 4.0 & I've never been published.

    If you really love this topic and will settle for nothing less, then you have to be prepared to devout a lot of time to reading about everything out there and, yes as you mentioned, tinkering with things like JStick and real time microboards all the time. You need to be a master of forward & inverse kinematics and also have all the algorithms down pat.

    I say this because people are not ready to hand over responsibilities to robots. You might cite NASA but their rigorous protocol of checking and double checking every tiny movement of their robots anything but artificial intelligence. Reason? High failure rate otherwise.

    Today's robots leave a lot to desire. That might have changed since I last looked in the field but I can tell you that less than 5% of all computer scientists are lucky enough to work with robots (or unlucky enough) and I think an even smaller percentage get to develop for them. Maintenance is just as needed there as it is in any other software.

    I'm not trying to discourage you, I'm trying to be realistic. I read I, Robot in fifth grade and it changed my life. Unfortunately, it only gave me the desire, not the rigorous technical background needed to put me in the few high percentage points of students.

    You mention mechanical engineering but that implies robotics from scratch. If you're a computer science student, I advise you to treat the hardware as a blackbox and use the APIs to program for them. There is some cross over you will need to learn to program for arm or walking robotics but this is more theory of how your code should look to work the controllers. I guess if you want to design from scratch and make genuinely new physical robots, then you need not only a mechanical engineering background but also one in electrical engineering. I also foresee a lot of the signals moving from hardwired to wireless for simplicity so that would mean Fourier transforms, wavelets, & the like.

    My suggestion is to hit Citeseer [psu.edu] for the free papers. Hit your college's IT site and try to get into the IEEE Computing document repository [computer.org]. They also have a special robotics division that you might find useful for creating contacts though I'm a member of it and that's never happened (you have to attend a lot of meetings). Look everywhere for material on the topic and see what other people did right and what other people did wrong. Have you ever heard of Robocup? Definitely read all the papers released about that and look into becoming active in your university's robotics lab.

    Most importantly, keep yourself knowledgeable/marketable for conventional jobs in computer science because you really never know what's going to happen. Robotic development has a very limited market. The factory line robots are getting more and more reliable and it seems any biomimicked robotics are for purely entertainment value. I'm not intending to be mean when I say it, but there probably is no "career" solely in robotics. You've got to bus tables in the computer science world before you can prove yourself to the big dogs.

    I now write web services and web applications. You have a romantic goal, I wish you the best of luck in a more exciting future.
    • To the parent:

      it was probably the fact that my grades were ~3.5 GPA out of 4.0 & I've never been published.

      If you've never been published, can we assume that you didn't do a master's thesis (opting to go the route of just taking classes instead)?

      If that is the case, that is probably a HUGE strike against you. An MS in any field where you simply take classes will only look slightly better than a BS. However, if you do a thesis and get published, you give yourself a lot of room for leverage.

      To the submi

      • Believe it or not, simply writing a thesis does not mean it automatically gets published. As a graduate CS student myself, I know plenty of people who have written theses, but have not been published. In our department, once your thesis is completed, you get six copies bound. One goes to the university library, one goes to the department head, three go to the student's committee (advisor, reader, observer), and you get to keep one. Being published involves a review by publishers and so-called peers; not
        • Find out whatever pet theory your so-called peers have staked their reputations on. Support it enthusiastically.

          Really, this is key. Look at string theory and global warming. You have to kiss butt with today's in-crowd until you at least have tenure, and maybe a Nobel Prize or similar.

          To break ranks and get famous doing it, you'd better have some damn good proof that nobody can argue with. (like the doctor who gave himself an ulcer to prove that ulcers are bacterial)
          • by Anonymous Coward
            You need to be in an environment where publishing papers is welcomed. Heck, I went back to large no-name state school. Technically, it's a research institution, but it's kind of ad-hoc at best. I was working at the time, so it made 'some' sense for me to go there. I wanted to get involved in research. Most of the professors blew me off. I later found out, it had a lot to do with the fact that very few students do undergraduate research. Heck, I got to know a couple of the professors really well and f
    • AI might help with military simulations or game development, but real-world "robots" are mostly like overpriced remote control toys.

      You should study real-time control (often done as a math or EE major) and embedded systems (often done as an EE major). Hmmm, how about getting an EE degree? Also, get to know Linux really well. Get to know VxWorks if you can find the opportunity.

      Then there is the big thing you need to do: persistently apply for jobs in the field. Mostly you will be rejected with good reason, b
      • Yeah, studying EE would be my suggestion as well. At least, take some courses, complete a minor (if you can), or get a certificate. Heck, a grad school will look at your transcripts, so they really don't care if you get that second degree or not. A lot of math/statistics departments might be useful as well. Frankly some of the neatest research in AI is being done by EEs and statisticians. CS really doesn't give you the appropriate background. Also, most statisticians don't hack.
    • Eldavojohn has a point but I fundamentally disagree with some aspects. Grade Point Averages do not determine your life, or rather you shouldn't let it determine your life. If a C (2.0) from English or History or some long ago class is pulling down your grade, will the Robotics community in the real world really care? My answer: maybe but there are always other places to go to and companies to work for that are involved in this type of thing.

      But the point is, if this is something you truly want, you can g
    • I agree, I also have an Msc. in Robotics, and when I graduated I also saw that there are two choices. If I want to do robotics, I have to apply for a Phd. and later become a university teacher specialising in this area somewhere. That means lots of theoretical work, doing publications, lots of reinventing the wheel, which is not bad, if you are into those things, but don't expect to buy a Mercedes from your first quarter of income. Or you look after a job, that pays. I'm currently doing embedded software.
    • Actually studying A.I. does not need a robot so badly. I normally use a combination of player and the provided simulators, stage and gazebo for A.I. http://playerstage.sf.net/ [sf.net] . Stage is good for studying group behaviour(agents) and gazebo is 3d with physics which make it great for more precise robotics.

      For robot vision like tasks i suggest aquiring a fisheye camera, sticking it to some mobile platform - a chair with wheels in the worst case - for avoiding shake and wandering with it around, recording a

  • by AuMatar ( 183847 ) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @07:03PM (#15643824)
    Most of what I see out there isn't robotics like sci-fi androids, where AI is needed. Its manufacturing work, and automation of small tasks (such as robotic vaccuum cleaners and dishwashers). Such things don't really need a lot of smarts, they just need precise movement and improved ease of programming/lower cost. If you really want to program them, study up on firmware and embedded programming, and machine vision (the only real AI most robots need). A basic understanding of ME is nice, but a degree isn't necessary.
    • I was in a team that built an humanoid robot for the robocup and I mostly agree.

      In my experience a team that want to build a complex robot need really good experts in: mechanics, control, electronics, communication, machine vision, embedded programming, hard realtime kernel programming (we used Linux+RTAI with custom kernel modules for our robot).

      Both robotics and AI are still relatively young, so IMO they are still not ready to go together. Real advanced AI for the moment is only needed on compu
  • You already have specialization in A.I. so I would suggest getting your foot in the door at a company that works in A.I. if you aren't already. Let them send you to school for your M.S.

    Depeding where this position is located will solve the problem of just getting an M.S. in CompSci or a more specialized degree.
  • by El Cubano ( 631386 ) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @07:24PM (#15643864)

    If I want to work in the field of robotics and AI later on in life, what do I need to do in my current situation to prepare myself?

    If that is really the only thing you want to do (i.e., life-long passion and all that), then go to CMU. AFAIK, there is no better robotics program than the one at Carnegie-Mellon.

  • ...in fact, I did. Got accepted too.

    Then a bit of further research revealed there were literally fuck all jobs in the field, and the univeristy s star Robotics student had only managed to get a job a Stationery factory. The same company that provided all of the University's stationery, I might add.

    I'm now about to embark on a Degree in Conservation Biology and Ecology. There may be just as many jobs (read: zero), but at least I'll be doing something worthwhile.

    Unless you are deadly serious and know you can
  • Move to Japan. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Animats ( 122034 ) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @07:36PM (#15643891) Homepage

    I ran one of the DARPA Grand Challenge teams, Team Overbot [overbot.com]. I'm not sure there really are "careers in robotics". Of our best young people, one is now running a hedge fund, and the other is working for a financial derivatives firm in New York. Neither of them could find anything in robotics with a big payoff.

    With 12 million illegal immigrants, the US doesn't need robots. Japan, though...

    • I'm not sure there really are "careers in robotics".

      Depends. Are you good at bending things?

      Then there are these folks [srl.org], but I don't think they pay anything.
    • With 12 million illegal immigrants, the US doesn't need robots.

      +5, insightful.

      Well, not strictly true perhaps -- there are tasks for robots that even immigrants won't (or at least, shouldn't ought to have to) do. Bomb disposal, reactor leak inspection, and so forth. But don't buy into the myth that there are jobs that "Americans won't do" either -- that conveniently avoids the other half of the equation: "at the wages offered". Raise the offered wages and you'll find takers.

      Raising the wages (and I don'
    • Here is what your student could have done after graduation:

      1. enlist in the army as an intelligence analyst
      2. get your TOP SECRET clearance
      3. enjoy, um, visiting exotic places
      4. quit the army
      5. apply to Boeing, Ratheon, Lockheed, General Dynamics...

    • My main academic interest was AI and I am currently working at a Japanese technology incubator, half for being able to speak English and half for that whole engineering degree thing. Specifically in AI I did a lot of work with natural languages. Those, um, don't lend themselves to working on the robots: of the 8 researchers I personally know on robotics the main commonality is a strong background in image processing (computational vision, etc) and 3D math (vision, motion, etc).

      As to the availability of ac
  • The only advice I have to offer (and I have yet to take it, so ymmv) is: Obtain and play with Lego Mindstorms. I'm sure other people will offer better advice.

    If you evar decide on a plan of action, then please share.
  • i work in robotics (Score:4, Informative)

    by blackcoot ( 124938 ) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @08:12PM (#15643982)
    pretty much regardless of what you want to do in robotics (other than at the technician level), you're going to need a master's degree and quite possibly a ph.d, depending on where you end up working. part of the process of getting the advanced degree means accepting that you are probably not one of the very few people in the world who are able to master robotics from the high level control / deliberative planning, low level reactive planning, perception, mechanical and electrical control, communications & processing architecture, all the way down to the low level circuits and mechanical systems. so pick something you want to do well in (in my case it's the machine perception and sensing side) and write a master's thesis (or do a master's project) on something relating to that speciality.

    regardless of your chosen speciality, you're going to want to get to be really good at math. in particular, linear algebra, calculus (multivariate), trig, analytic geometry, and stats/probabilities (in particular, bayesian thinking). also make sure you are really solid on forward and inverse kinematics. finally, an understanding of communication systems will be incredibly useful.

    concurrent with that, see if you can get a job working in the field. drop me an email and i can get you in touch with my company's recruiting/hr people (we qualified 5th at GC2 and we do a lot of UAS an UGV work). of the r&d staff, about 17% hold ph.d.s and over 90% hold at least one master's degree (there are several folks with multiple m.sc. degrees).

    finally: good luck! i know i couldn't believe that i'm actually being paid to play with the toys and do cool stuff with them :-)
  • If I want to work in the field of robotics and AI later on in life, what do I need to do in my current situation to prepare myself?

    Go get yourself a degree in systems engineering. Pure AI research is within the realm of computer science and if that's what you want to do go study there. Robitics involve sensors and actuators, control systems, signal processing, embedded systems design, computer vision and image processing, and of course AI. None of those are outside the realm of engineering but pure th

  • Not CompSci (Score:3, Informative)

    by JanneM ( 7445 ) on Saturday July 01, 2006 @08:29PM (#15644026) Homepage
    First, there's two kinds of robotics out there. There's the classical robotics like factory automation systems, which are made to be as reliable and predictable as possible. If you want to work in that field, you probably should have gotten an MEng in mechanical engineering and gone on to a PhD within the field specializing in control systems.

    Then there's adaptive robotics, closer to what people in general think of when they hear about robots. Adaptive, self-reliant systems perhaps capable of interaction with humans and able to get about in the world on the worlds' terms, not on their own. And there, I'm afraid, a CompSci degree is not going to cut it.

    Doing real adaptive robotics is a hard problem. It requires a lot of different subspecialities, from mechanical engineering to learning theory to neuroscience. You may have physicists, linguists, mathematicians, behavioral psychologists and neurobiologists all on the same team. And most of them will know AI and programming well enough already. It would have been a lot easier for you had you focused on on a field like the ones above rather than CompSci, to be frank.

    What you likely need is to be accepted at a PhD program with robotics somewhere; preferably one that lets - or requires - you widen your field to really learn one of the needed specialities as you go along. Since adaptive robotics is very experimental still, there really is no good training outside a PhD program, and nobody is going to take you seriously unless you have that doctorate anyhow.

  • I would recommend getting an MS or PhD with a professor who already does robotics and publishes. The various alumni of CMU's Robot Lab would be good for this, as they have solid experience and lots of connections. (Most graduate students get their first job through their advisor, after all) And the larger, more established programs often keep a listing of their alumni. Since the newer ones are going to be trying to get tenure, they're going to be driven to publish. This can be good or bad, since it mea
  • While there are many good comments, robotics really isn't an industry. To design robots from the ground up is NOT easy. The Lego mindstorms setup will teach you basics. From there keep learning, start your own company. Despite what you know, there is AWAYS more to learn, always. This is truly an area where you have to make your own opportunities. The simple fact is there is no robotics industry, and that is an opportunity for you to help build it... Good luck
  • Let me solve your question by solving a more generalized case. Let me reformulate the question more generally.

    What should one do if one wants to prepare for a technical field that is in its infancy and changing so rapidly that any current technology is likely to be obsolete by the time one develops sufficient skills to create real applications?

    Answer: study math. Math is the fundamental basis for all technical fields. Math skills never become obsolete, technical skills are obsolete the moment you learn them
  • I'm a little surprised at the "There is no robotics industry" replies. I just graduated with an ECE degree, wanted to go into robotics, and had three awesome job offers from three awesome companies that are all really competitive in the field. I applied about ten different places in Boston alone that all catered to my interests, and I found many many more outside of the state. One big issue is location -- for robotics, in the US, you should be in Boston, Pittsburgh, or Silicon Valley. I'm in Boston, so I know the most about stuff going on here. Pittsburgh is building up a lot of spinoffs from CMU's Robotics Institute (much as nearly all the Boston robotics companies spun out of MIT). Silicon Valley has a lot of stuff coming out of Stanford. Then you have to decide what kind. Consumer robotics? Someplace like iRobot. Industrial robotics? Barrett Technologies makes ridiculous robotic arms. Places like Honda do pretty awesome things there, too. Military robots? Boston Dynamics makes the BigDog (it was covered on Slashdot a while ago). Places like Boeing have big contracts with the military's Future Combat Systems program. Draper Laboratory here in Cambridge does flying, swimming, and driving robots for military applications. Space robots? NASA, of course, as well as Ball Aerospace, Boeing, and various university labs. Medical robots? Vecna Technologies in Boston does a human-carrying bot for both battlefield and hospital use. Anthrotronix in Maryland makes robots for kids in physical therapy programs. Some company, I don't know who, makes the DaVinci surgical robot. I personally work on underwater robotics at a just-out-of-startup phase company here in Boston called Bluefin Robotics. Join the IEEE Robotics and Automation society to start networking. Google robotics conferences and see which companies attend. My delicious page here [del.icio.us] has a bunch of links to sites I used during my job search. I do only have my BS, but I plan to get an advanced degree later. As a few of my profs told me, if you want to do the really awesome stuff, or you ever want to start your own company (which I do), you need a PhD for the credibility. I also just feel like there are still other classes I want to take. ;) But MIT, CMU, Stanford, and Georgia Tech are all particularly well-known for their robotics and AI programs. Many other universities are starting to jump on that bandwagon as well -- BU is up and coming in surgical robotics. So do your due diligence on Google, network as much as possible, and ask questions. There's a ton of stuff out there. Don't let anyone tell you the industry isn't there. This is just the beginning of something that will grow with incredible speed over the next couple of decades.
  • You should find people doing work that you like and ask them. I don't know a huge amount about the field, but the requirements for a job with serious academic robotics researcher Rodney Brooks [wikipedia.org] at MIT would be different than a job a his company iRobot [wikipedia.org], maker of the Roomba. And either one of those would probably be different than a job with Mark Tilden [wikipedia.org] building toy robots, and different again from an industrial automation job.

    Personally, I'd start with a visit to your nearest Robotics Society [google.com] and have a chat
  • Has AI and robotics advanced any further than what I read in the computer history books about MIT and Stanford? Last I read was that AI is/was still stuck in the same rut since the 1980s and the prefered programming language is LISP. Has the state of the art advanced in these two areas at all recently? Or is it still tuck away in obscure corners of academia?
  • If you plan on going into AI, you may as well skip the MS and go straight to a Ph. D. Lots of people don't realize they can do this, though it will probably put you at a disadvantage if you apply to very selective schools.

    AI is very theoretical, and you will be better prepared for work in this area with a depth-oriented degree such as the Ph. D. You'll also get the feel of what it's like to do research in theoretical Computer Science, if you haven't already. Since many positions in AI involve research on

  • I think it depends on who you want to go work for - and that, in turn, can be influenced by your people skills. I think for a lot of white collar jobs, any halfway bright person can become a success if it's something they're interested enough to work at, so you already have that covered by making a goal of something you like. The real catch is, of course, getting hired.

    If you consider yourself someone who can function well in a job interview, then IMHO the specifics of your credentials matter less. Aim f
  • If you're talking about the most common (by modles and quantities) robots then you don't want AI as much as mechanical engineering or computer engineering.

    If you're hopinh to get into AI with robotics you're probably looking at spending the next 10 years either as a student or researcher for a large university (CMU has been mentioned but others work too) and the degree you get should be based on having a well rounded knowledge of robotics (your PhD and research will establish a specialty).

    If you'd like to d
  • I spent all of last year working on Robotics at my current company. I was asked to join the project because they needed someone with a good knowledge of linux.

    On all the Robotics projects I was involved with, the first thing that was needed was to get the mechanics working. Most of my work during this phase was working with the mechanical engineers helping them to model the kinematics. Being able to talk with and understand mechanical engineers was important.

    After the mechanical problems were solve
  • I'm hoping to finish up a Ph.D. in Robotics in the next couple of years, so I have some perspective. My background is C.S., and that serves me pretty well. There are not many interesting robots these days which are built and programmed from scratch by a single person. Robotics is by its nature cross disciplinary. You don't need to have the skills of a Mech E, or be a pro at VLSI work to be in the field. It's good to have some knowledge in those areas, but that's primarily to enable you to work effectiv
  • A comment that one of my lecturers made way back when I was doing my Cognitive Science degree always stuck with me. She said that what we consider A.I now won't be considered A.I in the future.

    Take Chess as an example. Back in the 60s and 70s it was thought of as the cutting edge of A.I research. But when I was studying many moons ago it had long been realised that the ability to win a chess game did not help you solve other complex problems.

    Self driving cars were considered science fiction ten years a
  • All the interesting positions I've seen in robotics require a PhD. I'm sure there are other ways to get in, but this is probably the easiest. It's not an easy field to get into at all.
  • I am currently doing a thesis on building and controlling a bipedal robot. I was supposed to be getting my masters in mechatronics, but somehow it turned into EE controls. Very dissappointed because mechatronics sounds so much better. Anyway... depending upon where your robots focus is, it can contain Controls, AI, Dynamics, even Anatomy and Physiology if you choose that route. You should decide where your robot focus should be. Human-machine cybernetics? Human-machine interaction? Machine Intelligen
  • "Robotics" falls in between the stools of academic subjects and industrial applicability. In academia it is seen as the woolly all-encompasing term for research grants awarded to trendy fields like telesurgery, bomb disposal and image processing.

    The mathematics you need to be able to do trajectory planning, joint kinematics, machine vision and all the other types of transformations are described in J.J.Craig's book (ISBN 0201095289) [barnesandnoble.com]. This is the application of stuff that has been known for fifty years. The

  • I recommend picking a problem and making a robot to solve it. Then SELL! SELL! SELL!

    Robotics, renewable energy, innovative recyclable waste technologies are just what this country needs. These problems will likely be solved in time with innovative ideas that are sexy, neat, and astonishingly practical. Few companies are actively pursuing this type of goal. Those companies that are pursuing idealistic ventures are run by people who are basically part genius/nutcase/idealist/dreamer and are usually interested

Computer programmers do it byte by byte.