A multi-disciplinary field like human-robot interaction requires the ability to not only look at problems from different perspectives but also the creativity to think of “out of the box” solutions by going out of your comfort zone.

Deepak Gopinath, our next pathbreaker, works in the space of human-robot interaction for assistive robotics and semi-autonomous vehicles with the aim of understanding how humans and AI agents can interact synergistically !

Deepak talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about getting his music degree from The Berklee College of Music (not UCal Berkeley) after doing his BTech from IIT Mumbai, and then deciding to combine his background in engineering and fine arts to pursue a masters in Music Technology from Georgia Tech, which paved the way for his PhD in AI and Human Robot Interaction for Assistive Robotics at North Western University.

For students, you do not to have to keep your interests in sciences and arts separate, because these interests add an additional dimension to your repertoire of skills !

Deepak, what were your initial years like?

I grew up in a town called Thrissur in the state of Kerala, India. As a kid, I was generally curious about anything and everything and always wanted to do things in the best way I could. I was always attracted to pursuits that required deep dedication and consistent practice. There was something fundamentally satisfying to me about that process. Besides a very deep interest in mathematics and physics, I was also very much attracted to music and sports. My father is an engineer and my mother is a housewife, and most importantly, they provided me with the right kind of supportive environment which gave me a great deal of confidence and motivation to pursue whatever I wanted to in my life.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After finishing high school in Thrissur, I attended Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB) to pursue my first undergraduate degree (B.Tech) in Engineering Physics. Although my time at IITB was very formative and laid the foundations for my later foray into the world of technology, it was my interest in music that dominated the last couple of years of my stay at IITB. I wanted to study jazz and moved to the USA to learn from and play with some of the best musicians on the planet. Although I had been playing the drums for nearly a decade by then, opportunities to learn from and play with other jazz musicians were far and few. However, I had some exposure to the professional as well as college festival circuit in Mumbai playing rock and metal music. After graduating from IITB, I took a gap year, during which I practiced extensively, and prepared for auditions to attend music schools in the United States. I had to do in person auditions (which is the norm for any performing arts kind of degree programs). In 2008, I was accepted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music and moved to Boston to start my second undergraduate degree. Here, I majored in classical composition, percussion performance and electronic music. 

During my time at Berklee, it became clear to me that I didn’t have to keep my interests in sciences and arts separate and as a result, I wanted to combine them in some way or the other. This led me to a Masters degree in Music Technology which I obtained from Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. At Georgia Tech, I was exposed to the bigger world of AI and Human Centered Robotics and hence I decided to continue in this line of work. I moved to Chicago in 2015 to pursue a PhD in Mechanical Engineering (with a focus on AI and Human Robot Interaction for Assistive Robotics) from Northwestern University. 

What were some of the factors that led you on such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career path?

I have always aspired to have a life in which I am always on a path of continuous self discovery. Having a career is not the end goal for me, but rather having a fulfilling life is. At this point in time, I might be involved in the domain of robotics and AI, but in a few years I don’t rule out the possibility of venturing into a completely new field as a novice. 

Just like many others, I have had my fair share of inspirations that include sportspersons, artists, and scientists etc. I have had wonderful mentors at different phases in my life, telling me the truth that I had to hear (however bitter it might sound) that put me in the right path and instilled in me a sense of discipline and purpose. Everyone has formative events in their lives. For me, it could have been a concert that I attended, a book that I read, or an equation that mesmerized me. More important for me is learning how to transform that energy into sustainable practice that one can rely on for continued success and growth. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I would say the first thing is to pay close attention to oneself and really understand what your deepest interests and motivations are. Having found that (even if it is something that you know might only last for a few years), the next step is to be realistic about how you want to achieve them. Many pursuits (for example, wanting to be a musician) require consistent and persistent practice, a great deal of time and effort and require a lot of patience. You need to make sure that everyone that is close to you is supportive of it, as that becomes an important factor for your mental well being. Whenever I wanted to make a transition and venture into a new pursuit, I did all of the above and made sure I was prepared. I did the best I could given the resources I had. My journey went from studying physics to music to music technology to AI and robotics. And at each transition point, there was a lot of learning that had to happen, which I was able to accomplish in a disciplined manner. Systematic approach to things with realistic goals will provide each of us with the confidence necessary to pursue anything. 

After my stint at IITB, I researched extensively about music schools in the US. When I auditioned for different schools, I also applied to some scholarships that the universities had to offer. I also looked into other private scholarship opportunities such as Inlaks scholarship. I was fortunate to be awarded a partial scholarship from the university. While studying, I also did part-time work which supplemented my income. At every stage, it is also important to find good mentors who will help advance your career. 

When I initially decided to pursue music full-time, my goal was to be a full-time performer and composer specifically within the jazz idiom. But when I reached Berklee (Boston) and as I was exposed to new ideas and prospects, I was able to redefine my life’s vision. I actively sought out collaborations with other musicians and found mentors who encouraged me to build software and hardware systems that added new dimensions to my creative pursuits. By the time I was applying for my Masters in Music Technology, I had a good enough portfolio of technical projects (software applications for iPad, motion-tracking systems to map body movements to music etc.) that augmented my pure musical abilities. In retrospect, I believe, demonstrating the diversity of skills via tangible projects must have made a difference. 

During my Masters and PhD, I was fully funded with a stipend which meant I did not have to apply for external scholarships. Whether you get a scholarship or not might depend on various factors, but it is important to demonstrate what you are capable of (in terms of the diversity of projects you have done) when you apply to schools. This will likely increase your chances of getting a scholarship.

My work at Georgia Tech was at the intersection of AI, robotics and music. I was involved in a project that aimed to build a prosthetic arm that could play the drums for an amputee drummer named Jason Barnes. Working on this project, at once, exposed me to the problems in human-robot interaction, assistive robotics and user-centered design. There are numerous other avenues that can be pursued at the intersection of arts and technology: for example, one can focus on building new instruments or software applications that can help performers and composers to augment their music making skills or one could work on designing AI systems that will generate personalized music recommendations by analyzing your usage characteristics etc. The field is vast, only your imagination is the limitation. A natural progression was to pursue a PhD and do a deep dive into these fields. 

At Northwestern University, for my PhD, I worked on mathematical modeling and algorithm design for improving human-robot interaction in the domain of assistive robotics. I was affiliated with argallab (assistive and rehabilitation robotics lab) in the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab (formerly known as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago), which is the top rehabilitation hospital in the USA for over two decades. Particularly, I was interested in making assistive robots more intelligent using AI and machine learning techniques so that people who use them find it easier to accomplish tasks in their day-to-day lives. 

During my PhD, I also had the opportunity to work with Toyota Research Institute on various projects related to self-driving and semi-autonomous vehicles. In particular, I worked on a project that analyzed eye gaze data to understand how humans attend to various objects in the world while driving a car. 

The commonalities between all these pursuits are plentiful. They all involve complex problem-solving and force one to think about these problems in a multi-dimensional manner. Being adaptable, and the ability to learn new things as and when needed become paramount in these kinds of situations. 

How did you get your first break? 

No one necessarily handed me anything just like that. So I would not say there was a ‘break’ in the normal sense of the word. But the fact that I was able to attend Berklee College of Music definitely gave me the opportunity to interact with world-class talent which opened up a lot of opportunities. When the opportunities present themselves, the most important factor is whether you are prepared to face the moment or not. I think I was, which has helped me to continue to pursue my interests quite successfully so far in life. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

The transition from my physics days to my music days was filled with uncertainty because I didn’t know anyone who had done that before me, someone I could talk to. So I had to rely solely on what I thought was going to make me successful. That meant, I had to make sure I exhausted all resources I had at my disposal to learn anything and everything I could about music, before showing up for my college auditions. Navigating that kind of uncertainty can be mentally stressful, but one has to keep reminding oneself that it is important to trust the process and take it one step at a time. 

I faced a similar challenge when I transitioned back into the technology space after studying music. My programming and math skills were rusty and I didn’t feel confident doing them. But I also knew that just complaining about the fact that I was rusty was not going to get me anywhere. Once again it was a process of systematically addressing the challenges and then solving it one at a time. And once again, trusting the process. 

All challenges have a commonality in them; if you are able to somehow break down the challenge you are facing into tractable smaller problems and then come up with a plan to solve these and then finally actually execute the plan, then any challenge can be overcome. The key part though is the execution. If you don’t execute, the challenge will remain as a challenge. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am finishing up my PhD currently and I also work part-time for Toyota Research Institute. Currently I work in the space of human-robot interaction for assistive robotics and semi-autonomous vehicles. There are numerous challenging problems that exist in this domain. For example, if autonomous agents need to cooperate with humans, they need to have the capability to understand what the humans want. Inferring the user’s intent is a challenging problem for autonomous agents to solve. Another hard problem is to determine how exactly task roles/responsibilities should be shared between the human and the robot while accomplishing a task together. 

The most important skill to have is to be adaptable and be able to think of problem-solving from multiple perspectives. This requires creativity and going outside of your comfort zone. My work involves a great deal of mathematical modeling, programming, experiment design and running research studies. As I mentioned earlier, you acquire these skills by having a plan to learn them and then executing the plan. Resources are plentiful on the internet these days, it is a matter of committing to learning something and being consistent about it. A typical day consists of reading research papers, some programming, preparing research manuscripts/presentations etc. I love the fact that I am able to do research these days because it gives me the intellectual freedom and creativity to solve meaningful problems. 

How does your work benefit society?

Although my current research may not have immediate impact on society, as the world is becoming more and more technologically advanced with AI/robotics becoming a constant presence in our lives, I believe that my work is going to help in advancing the understanding of how humans and AI agents interact especially in a setting where AI assists the human to make their lives easier. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

During my Masters at Georgia Tech, I had the opportunity to work on a team that helped to build the world’s first robotic drumming prosthetic device. This prosthetic arm was designed for a drummer who had lost his arm in an accident. The team built a robotic prosthesis device that had not just 1 stick, but 2 sticks, one of which was controlled by the drummer and the other controlled by an AI. I had a great deal of fun building different kinds of musical functionalities for this robot. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I think it is important to develop a habit of introspection early on, so that you are in touch with your innermost desires and aspirations. It is easy to get caught up in the rat race around you and forget to connect with yourself. Be prepared to work for your dreams. Anybody can be passionate about anything in life; that is the easiest part. The harder part is, how much effort are you willing to put in to pursue that passion. It is important to set short term as well as long-term goals and be realistic about it. And lastly, please take care of your mental and physical health at all times as well. 

Future plans? 

I am hoping to continue in the domain of robotics and AI for a few more years. I also intend to continue with my music career on the side. I have also embarked on some entrepreneurial pursuits in the space of education. With a friend, I am working on an educational initiative, called TryLab (www.trylab.org), which seeks to empower students to become creative, multi-dimensional thinkers who can become successful in an accelerating world.