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Many people ask me how I ended up doing parallel programming, cognitive robotics, astrophotography. When I talk about how it all happened, some people look at me with disbelief, some are surprised and some say I should write a book. If you are curious you can now read the new article below written by Andrew Merrington, Plymouth University.


icub and me


Meet the Good Will Hunting of the robotics department - by Andrew Merrington


When we talk about the potential for higher education to transform lives, there can be few more compelling examples than that of Martin Peniak.

Today, Martin is a post-doctoral researcher in robotics, whose expertise in artificial intelligence and parallel processing has helped create partnerships for the University with the European Space Agency and global computer processing giants NVidia. But rewind the clock eight years to his first night in Plymouth, and the contrast could hardly be greater.


Martin had travelled to Britain from his native Slovakia, accompanying his then girlfriend who had secured work as an au pair in Plymouth.


“When we arrived in the city the family picked her up, and I was left on my own,” he recalls. “Later I was sleeping in the bus station, and someone came up to me and said that I should move on because a woman had been killed there not long before. I didn’t really speak English but I could understand enough! I moved off and as soon as it was morning I walked to the job centre and started applying for work.”


Martin landed a job in a fish processing factory and he worked solidly for the next three months – no mean feat when you consider that he is a vegetarian. He established a foothold in the city, making his home in various youth hostels – but it was a chance meeting on his 20th birthday that would truly change his life forever.


“I had been waiting for my girlfriend when I struck up a conversation with a man on the street,” he said. “We talked about astronomy and photography, and the man said that I should consider going to university.”


“At first, I laughed because I had never intended to go to university. I did not like the educational system in my country, because it is largely based on memorising texts rather than learning how to understand something and apply it in the real-world.”


That man on the street was Professor Simon Davies, of the School of Biomedical and Biological Sciences, and unbeknown to him, he had just planted a seed in Martin’s mind.


“I began to think that maybe I could study in the day and fund myself by working at night,” Martin continued. “So I went back to Slovakia to complete my civil service and started to learn English. I bought a voice recorder to help me improve, and applied to Plymouth University through the UCAS system.”


With a reference supplied by Professor Davies, Martin secured a place on the BSc (Hons) Computing degree, and true to his vision, he began a demanding dual life, studying during the day, before rollerblading across the city to work in the fish processing plant until 3.00am. And just as astronomy had played a role in his path to university, so it shaped his journey through it. In his final-year undergraduate project Martin developed a programme that simulated the artificial evolution of neural network controllers for Mars rovers. Working with Professor Angelo Cangelosi, he presented a paper at the ASTRA European Space Agency conference, and this led an official collaboration for the University with ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team.


“I’ve always been interested in electronics and computing,” Martin said. “As a child I was always taking things apart to see how they work, and then putting them back together again. Working with Angelo, I began to develop an understanding of programming languages and physics engines, artificial intelligence and neural networks.”


Awarded the Revel Research award for best student on the programme, Martin was offered the opportunity to undertake a PhD in cognitive robotics, and so joined his mentor Professor Cangelosi on the Plymouth-led pan-European ITALK (Integration and Transfer of Action and Language Knowledge in Robots) project, working with iCub.


“Doing a PhD was an absolutely amazing experience,” Martin reflected. “I travelled to dozens of countries, met interesting people and did so much more besides.” He’s not kidding – an exceptional networker, Martin contacted global computer processor giant NVIDIA and shared with them some of his research results attained with their graphic processing units. They were so impressed that they invited him to their Santa Clara headquarters so that he could present to them. This led to an internship for Martin this summer, and the establishment of an official NVIDIA laboratory at Plymouth, which he now runs with fellow post-doctoral researcher Davide Marocco.


He said: “Single CPUs are hitting their limits, and not enough people are capable of moving to parallel processing. Thanks to NVIDIA, who donated some of the hardware and books, we now have a network of parallel GPU supercomputers at the University that we can use to teach people. We have established a new module on the syllabus, and it is very exciting to be able to teach students something that I love.”


Martin is also working on the Poeticon++ project, which takes forward the language acquisition research of iCub: quite a horizon for a young man who set out for Britain with a side-line in making drums and didgeridoos. And while he may no longer be with the same girlfriend, you’ll still find him skating across Plymouth in the morning.


“Networking, having opportunities to create and develop yourself, doing what I love and constantly trying to reach beyond the current horizons – I call it living a dream,” he said.