Jacky Baltes: Olympic Speed Skater turned Computer Scientist

 standing (l-r): John Anderson and Jacky Baltes with their students in the Autonomous Agents Lab

posted 10 February 2010

Autonomous Agents Laboratory web site      Professor Jacky Baltes' home page 
Computer Science Grads work on Avatar   Television Interview in Taiwan

Jacky Baltes (Computer Science) didn't start his career working on robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning.  His first passion in life was speed skating, and as a 3-time national champion, he represented Germany at the 1984 Sarajevo and 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

Baltes was always interested in computers and robotics, and taught himself programming on an Apple IIe, which he had converted into a portable computer so that he could carry it to training camps and competitions. After the 1988 Olympics, he decided that it was time to get serious about becoming a computer scientist.

As professor at the Autonomous Agents Laboratory in the Faculty of Science, Baltes has been working with robotics for more than 10 years. Along with his students, he (and fellow computer scientist, John Anderson), have been competing successfully in the international Robocup and FIRA competitions in places like China, the US, Korea and Austria, against much larger universities with major funding sources. 

It has been the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the team that has contributed to its success.  For example, they use a variety of embedded devises, such as cell phones, to cut costs and to control their robots.  In their various competitions, a single humanoid robot is programmed to participate in eight events including: sprint, marathon, obstacle run, stepping field (uneven surfaces), climbing wall, basketball, soccer and weight lifting.

How do you use a cell phone to program a robot?  To learn the answer to that question, you have to be one of the dedicated students working with Baltes in th lab.  Baltes says, "Students are eager to work with the robots when they learn about the Autonomous Agents Lab, but when they find out how much work is involved, and how many hours it takes, only a few are up for the challenge." 

He explains that artificial intelligence (AI) did not evolve for abstract thought, but for coping with the physical world.  Relatively, it is easy to program a computer to play chess, which involves a certain type of reasoning.  However, the human reasoning and general intelligence required to understand one's surroundings and to interact in a three-dimensional world are much more complex.  A computer may beat you at chess, but may have a hard time picking up a paper cup without squashing it.

Baltes and his students work with many different types of Robots.  Some run on wheels and some are more human-like and walk. 

"Working with the wheeled robots is easier," says Baltes, "because you don't have to worry about balance."  One of the challenges for walking robots is the climbing-wall event, where the steps to ascend cannot be pre-programmed and the robot has to be able to maneuver up the wall dynamically.  Again, reasoning that would be easier for a human than to program into a robot.

The most recent addition to the lab has been Archie, the 1.2 meter tall humanoid robot built by the Vienna University of Technology at a cost of $200 thousand.  For the Autonomous Agents Lab, Archie was a windfall, but to put it in perspective, Archie competes against robots, like a recent Japanese team entered, worth $3 million.  You'd have to have the determination of an Olympian to successfully compete against those odds. 

Working with robots isn't all about toys and games; its purpose has a much more serious side in real-world applications.  Robots are used in search and rescue efforts so that robots, rather than people, can be sent in to dangerous situations, like burning buildings, to search for survivors.  We've all heard about their use in everything from space exploration, car-assembly plants to bomb-disposal units.

More recently, there have been developments in service robots that may be of use in elder care.  (We already have robots that can vacuum our floors.)  The service robots, potentially, would be very sophisticated and would need to be able to interact with people and understand speech, gestures, signs and their environment: making transversing the climbing wall sound relatively simple.

Although working with robots involves many long hours, a lot of dedication and hard work, as Baltes and his students can attest, graduates from the program are recruited by all different kinds of companies for the problem-solving skills they develop during their tenure in the lab. 

As Baltes explains:  "Students not only have computer science skills, but must develop proficiency in areas such as engineering and physics.  My students have been recruited by many companies including Canadian NRC research labs, Bank of America.  They have worked on animation in the film industry on such films as Journey to the Centre of the Earth (3D version), Superman Returns, Happy Feet 2, and the most recent blockbuster Avatar."  They also developed a robotics art project for Reva Stone, a local artist: combining art and science.

The passion and drive that first took Baltes to the Olympics is now channeled, with his students, into robotics competitions, and the hard work has paid off as the team competes successfully around the world.  In 2009, Baltes became a member of IROC, the International Robot Olympiad.