Have you met...Michael Benjamin?

Michael is passionate about artificial intelligence for marine robots, but basketball was his dream job as a kid.

Michael is a research scientist in the department of mechanical engineering at MIT and his research interest is marine autonomy - artificial intelligence (AI) for robots to go in the ocean. He holds a PhD in computer science and is passionate about AI but, particularly, AI for marine robots.

Michael Benjamin in Boston, MA

We’re sure you have worked a lot with young scientists by now. Which are the qualities scientists should have to begin to work in such field as marine robotics?
Hum…That’s an interesting question and it comes up a lot in the context of how we find students that we ultimately want to work with, advise and guide through their PhD. A lot of people of who we ask that question they would say we are looking for the smartest students. Surely, we are looking for that but the biggest quality we have a hard time identifying is ultimately who is passionate, who is interested in the marine robotics field in particular. It’s relatively simple or easy to find people who are smart, there are standardized tests to enter to MIT or to other universities that are a very good indication if you are smart but ultimately what we need are people who are passionate about the ocean, passionate about marine robotics, passionate about using marine robots to explore the ocean and that’s not something that you can find easily. So when we see people that are really interested in that and they find themselves losing hours of their time on the work and being happy about that, that’s when we know we have somebody that is going to work really well for us. 

In addition, you probably collaborate a lot with other scientists and your peers, which are the major qualities you seek for in collaborators?
That’s a good question too! So, certainly, we look for collaborations with people which have shared interests. The university setting is looking for people that not only share their interest and passion but also are hard dedicators to the open nature of science. People who want to publish in an open domain and try to leave the next generations of students better enabled to conduct research by leaving building blocks, well-documented, usable and understandable data. So, I want science to be shared. 

Following this topic, it would be very interesting for our followers to know, in your opinion, what will be the field or invention with a major breakthrough in the next years?
So, in marine robotics, there’s a lot of concurrent sciences and technologies that are being developed. The number of companies that are coming and developing commercial platforms is growing very fast. The battery technologies are also advancing, the ability to harness energy from the oceans, so vehicles can last longer. Computers are becoming smaller, requiring less processing power, which generates less heat, which means you can put them on marine vehicles. Hum… the sensors are also becoming cheaper and more capable. The more you have vehicles that can be out in the ocean for a long-time processing sensor data and collaborating with humans and other robots, the more it pushes what we want from autonomy. In marine robotics, the trend now is the vehicles being out there much longer, making decisions on their own, processing sensor data while they’re still on the water or communicating with other vehicles and the autonomy becomes very interesting in that case.

And now a more personal question, if you weren’t working on marine robotics, what type of job would you be doing? Or what did you want to do when you were a kid?
Oh gosh, when I was a kid! When I was a kid I thought I would be a basketball player [laughing]. But anyways, I find it over the course on the lab I really enjoy putting together educational materials, creating video artifacts. So, perhaps I might be a videographer, a video-journalist or something related to that because I like communicating. I like making complex ideas simple and reachable to people and a lot of times a well-made video is just the thing!

Although your work is mainly code-related, you seem to really enjoy being outside. How can you combine both?
I can argue a couple of things about that! Most computer scientists don’t write code in dark rooms anymore. I write my code with a coffee at some café with a great view. That’s just the way it’s done nowadays! But I would also argue that writing code is an art form, as well, a form of expression! It’s very satisfying just like video making. Also, video making is a form of coding in terms of how the pieces are put together, how they’re constructed and put to work together, it’s a very technical endeavor as well. There’s more overlap between these two areas than we think.

Portugal and Boston share the same ocean, the Atlantic. Considering your background in marine robotics and your experience with the ocean, do you have any advice for the Portuguese scientists?
Oh gosh! Yeah, good question! I mean, Portugal has an amazingly long rich history of deeply exploring the ocean. Now that marine robotics is maturing to the point where the robots are no longer swimming a half a mile away from where they started but literally thousands of miles away, maybe it’s the right time to re-engage this field because you can literally explore the world’s ocean now with marine robotics. So, rediscover it!

So, curious about marine robotics, AI, and coding? Such an exciting new field! As you may read, Michael appreciates people that share his passion to work with! Who knows if Oh My Science can help you find your dream supervisor 😉

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