Muhammad Babar is a CONFIRM PhD Student based at Athlone Institute of Technology
“I learned that research is all about new and unseen challenges coming up along the road.”
Tell us a bit about your research...
My research question is about making robotic arms which have been used in Industry since the 3rd Industrial evolution smart and intelligent. This will allow them to learn their tasks such as Pick and Place, instead of just hardwiring it. Having the ability to learn, it can try to learn a solution to a cahnge in the in the task it was progammed to do by itself without needing manual intervention. For instance, if a robotic arm is made to learn the process of picking up a bottle from the conveyer belt, it can then automatically learn its way to pick up a glass from the conveyer belt once the bottle is replaced with the glass.
For this, I am working with cutting-edge learning technologies like Reinforcement Learning and Deep Reinforcement Learning, under the basic idea that we will use a reward-based system to make the robotic arm learn the task. Upon successful operation, it will be awarded a reward, and the motive will be to maximize the reward as much as possible. For now, I am working with a non-visual approach using reinforcement learning to achieve the goal. The next plan is to come up with a visual approach to guarantee more better results.
Could your research help in future global crises like the current COVID-19 pandemic?
As this research idea involves making the robotic systems in industries smart enough to make their own decisions at every new unseen turn, thus minimizing the human manual intervention. From the perspective of world crises such as COVID19, it can impact in two major ways. Firstly, it can help in achieving the social distancing target within a work area, as the less human intervention will be required as compared to the bulk of labor all over the factory. Secondly, in such crises as we have witnessed a shortage of products at retailers, leading to even price hikes, smart and intelligent robotic systems can enhance the production level to deal with this issue.
What did you study as an Undergraduate?
I am a Pakistani national and my all education was completed in Pakistan. Being specific, my undergraduate was the 4-year Bachelor of Science in Computer Science honors degree from The Islamia Univeristy Bahwalpur, Pakistan, where I later went on to do a Masters of Science in Computer Science. My research thesis specialization was in Image Processing and Network Security. I worked on human skin detection and encryption in real-time video feeds for surveillance applications and completed my degree with distinction.
What made you decide to go into research?
Frankly speaking, I never knew much about something called ‘Research’. When I pursued my undergraduate degree, the only thing I knew was to use different programming languages to develop some traditional softwares. But in my last year, I was introduced to the World of Research by my project supervisor, when he handed over to me some research papers with the task to cultivate a new research question out of them. That was the first time I saw a path that actually leads to the phrase I had heard many times, ‘think outside the box’. At that particular time, I realized that I have been inside the box for much time, unaware of what is blooming outside. When I tried to find ways to get out of the box, I learned that research is all about new and unseen challenges coming up along the road. Every challenge you tackle, makes a contribution from your side to the research world, even opening many new doors for future perspectives. This never ending opportunity of contributing to a noble cause made me go into research.
What do you enjoy most about being a PhD student?
In my personal case, being a Ph.D. student here in Ireland, came at a certain price. Leaving friends and family back in my home country and settling in a new continent is surely not an easy task to carry out.
But being enrolled as a Ph.D. student has perks of its own. It is actually the real embodiment of the quote “Every day is a New Day”. Every sunrise brings with itself numerous opportunities for learning something new, thus taking yourself closer to the goal of contributing to the world. All these weeks are enriched with versatile challenges, which can be as simple as communicating your idea to your peers in a discussion, and as complex as developing the whole framework for your hypothesis to test and defend it to the world. This limitless supply and demand of challenges is the most enjoyable factor and what that makes a researcher thrive every other day.
Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about a career or research in STEM?
For all the students at the undergraduate level studying STEM, I would suggest that undoubtedly textbooks play a vital role in acquiring knowledge of your domain or field. But don’t limit yourself to the bookish knowledge, instead, explore the research world and find papers that interest you regarding your domain. In this way, other than what the author told you in the book, you will see the present-day standing of that knowledge being implemented by people in your field. You will find the actual application of the knowledge you gathered, which is the far most important aspect of learning. Once you start seeing through this practical side of knowledge, you will be better able to decide and make choices for the future.