For many of us, being handed a C++ compiler in high school would have been a difficult and inauspicious introduction to computer science. Not so for George Konidaris, who joins Brown CS as assistant professor this autumn: as a teenager, growing up in South Africa, he had mostly used computers for games, but the compiler looked interesting. “It was magical,” he says of teaching himself to program. “It was a profound change for me, a mini-intellectual revolution. The world shifted half a degree on its axis. That’s really where I learned how to think.”
A love of research has spanned George’s entire career, and as a teenager, the tools for seeking knowledge were close at hand. An older sister, having graduated with a joint degree in computer science and economics, no longer needed her textbooks. “I plundered them,” says George. “It was fascinating, and I became very serious about learning everything about computers that I could.”
“Starting out as an undergraduate at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg,” he explains, “I was drawn to artificial intelligence.” To Konidaris, it had the biggest, most interesting open questions.
George’s social circle shared his interest in research. “Five of my friends from university ended up getting their PhDs overseas. We hung out every day, and we talked each other into the idea of studying abroad.” He won a scholarship to do his Master’s degree in the UK, and chose the University of Edinburgh for their strong programs in artificial intelligence but also robotics, which had been of increasing interest throughout his undergraduate years. After Edinburgh, his travels took him to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he earned his PhD, leaving him with four degrees from universities on three different continents.
What was the appeal of robotics? Konidaris sums up his thoughts with a simple statement that turns unexpectedly introspective. (It may also explain the ease with which he puts his arm around one of his own robots and smiles for a photograph.) “If the brain is a computer, and I think it is, then humans are robots.”
Asked to explain his unbroken interest in research, George says that it’s been interesting, fun, and turned out to be something he was “reasonably good” at. “When you look at the history of computer science, it’s very inspiring. Its researchers are brilliant, just amazing people. And, in the space of a generation, they changed the world in a profound way.”
Konidaris describes his own work as an attempt to design intelligent robots. “Robots have the fundamental problem of making plans and generating action when they’re doomed to interface with the world at the level of the pixel and the motor. That’s their reality. But to achieve more complex behavior, to do something like having a robot get to the right gate at an airport to catch a plane, we need them to be able to make abstractions, to plan using higher-level concepts. At the moment, it’s more like they have to carefully plan every individual footstep and then struggle with things like recognizing what the right gate looks like when the scene has changed even a little bit. I’m interested in helping them gain the ability to reason and learn at the right level for solving the problem at hand.”
He’s in good company. George says that he’s always wanted to work with faculty members like Amy Greenwald, Michael Littman, and Stefanie Tellex. “It was just too tempting! Brown CS is a great fit for me. It was a combination of things: a department that’s really good at what it does, an outstanding place that’s really friendly.” Konidaris is eager to meet students as well. “A career in computer science can be a lifetime commitment,” he says. “I hope people are looking ahead, not at just the next big thing but the long run. I think it’s important for all of us to look back at the end of our contributions and see something that’s been worthy of an intellectual lifetime.”
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