Interview with Peter Corke

The Australian robotics researcher and award-winning teacher discusses the importance of hands-on learning and why robots won’t be taking our jobs any time soon

January 11, 2018
Peter Corke
Source: Sonja De Sterke

Peter Corke is professor of robotic vision at Queensland University of Technology and director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision. Before moving into academia, he was a senior principal research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Professor Corke's teaching revolves around hands-on experiments and robot construction tasks, and he has also developed a series of online courses and resources. Last month, he was named the 2017 Australian University Teacher of the Year.

Where and when were you born?
Melbourne in 1959, at the tail end of the baby boom.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in a house with lots of books and read a lot. The space programme was happening; I wanted to be an astronaut, and I still have childhood scrapbooks filled with newspaper cuttings of the Gemini and Apollo programmes. I went to an amazing, small local high school, where only four of us in my senior year were in the maths/science stream. There was a science club, and we had access to all the lab equipment. Electronics was the thing, and I went to university to study electrical engineering, accidentally fell into robotics in 1984 and have been doing that ever since.

What satisfied you most about winning the Australian University Teacher of the Year award?
To have the work that I’ve been doing recognised. This has been a massive labour of love, but my day job is as a teaching and research academic, and being director of a national research centre of excellence. The online teaching resources have been developed in the cracks, and that I’ve been able to achieve what I have is down to working with a wonderful team of people at QUT who help me take the ideas and turn them into polished and supported product. My personal mental model is that I’m a researcher who does a bit of teaching. What is most satisfying about winning this award is that [it makes me feel] maybe I’m a teacher who does research.

You were commended by the judges for your hands-on experimental learning techniques. How important is it for you to engage students in practical learning?
I think it’s very important. Robotics involves a lot of mathematics, and many students find this intimidating. The great thing about robotics is that it’s mathematics implemented, and taking abstract concepts and turning them into working code that makes something move is very rewarding, and that does great things for engagement. If I can show that a particular algorithm is useful and can solve a real problem, then a student is going to be much more motivated to understand it than [under] the traditional approach of tediously developing it up from first principles. I teach the theory with just enough formality and mathematics, illustrate it with working software and real-world examples, and throw in a bit of history and whimsy for good measure.

Why should Joe Bloggs care about your work?
Robots have led to huge improvements in productivity and product quality. For most of human history, we’ve had to do physical work to get by. Today, in prosperous countries we are lucky to have the option of doing non-physical work. Robotics has the potential to replace a lot of physical labour, perhaps in time all physical labour. Human civilisation has never been in this situation, and this will pose real dilemmas for our society: What will people do? How will they get what they need to survive if there are no jobs? Should we ban the technology? Is a universal basic wage the answer? These are some of the reasons why Joe should care.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That robots are going to take your job. Right now, we’re happy if our robots do something useful for a few hours.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Mostly diligent and studious, but with a few odd exceptions. There were a few things that just didn’t work for me: materials science, especially concrete, and statistics. Statistics is something I wished I’d paid more attention to; I’ve had to learn it late because it’s really important for robotics that need to make sense of lots of sensory data that is always somewhat uncertain.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Apart from the music and the drinking, the biggest thing for me was access to computers. I wrote a program – we’d now call it a Trojan Horse – that allowed me to gain administrator rights on the school’s minicomputer. I printed out all the usernames and passwords and slipped them under a professor’s door. He offered me my first job.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
I’ve been an academic for only eight years, but compared with my own time at university, I see that students have jobs and other lives and expect university to accommodate that – we weren’t so bold as to expect that. The rise of lecture recording helps the students in their busy lives but also leads, I think, to a poorer overall educational experience. I worry about the increases in fees and the reducing outcomes for graduates. I was fortunate to study at university during a brief period in Australia when it was free.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best part is interacting with students. The worst part is email.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
I think there’s more to luck than just what the world does to you; you can influence it by keeping an eye out for opportunities and taking them or even being a bit bold and creating an opportunity. The worst that can happen is that somebody says “no”.

What would you like to be remembered for?
Influencing and teaching a new generation of roboticists around the world.


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