Getting into Robotics: Francesco Mondada
What were you like in school and as a teenager?
I mainly remember my holidays, more than school… for the weekend we always moved from Locarno, where we had an apartment and I was attending the school, to the top of the Val Verzasca, in a small village where my parents have a house and my father installed a mechanical workshop.
Did you always know you wanted to study robotics or did you at any point consider other career paths?
I got my passion for mechanics from my father. As we had a workshop and I could manufacture my own parts, I started building many objects. But at one point I got a computer as first prize in a lottery and started programming. This combination of mechanics and IT resulted very naturally in building a robot, interfacing it to the computer and programming it.
How did you end up in research from there?
Research was the best place where I could explore new ideas and create new machines. After my master’s I participated in a research project about artificial intelligence and robotics at EPFL with the Prof. Nicoud, and started working with Dario Floreano, Alcherio Martinoli and many others. I spent several years in a start-up I created with some colleagues, but came back to explore new paths.
How did your work evolve into educational robotics?
Educational robotics is probably the field where I can combine in the best way my passion for technology and my commitment to improve society. But I am not doing only educational robotics for instance animal-robot interaction is also a core activity in my group.
How do you think robotics in schools will change in the next few years?
We are facing a period where robotics will enter massively into schools, mainly because of new curricula considering computational thinking as a key competence for new generations. Therefore robotics will move from being the contest done after school to the core of the lessons, and for this purpose the robots need to be much more accessible and adapted to education.
What do you think are the greatest challenges for robotics in general in the future?
I think the greatest challenge is to find the good equilibrium between advanced technology, human interaction, economic impact and use of resources.
What advice for those who would like to consider going into robotics research in the future?
Think in an interdisciplinary way, get a broad view and build bridges among disciplines, this enables real breakthroughs.
…and to those who wish to follow an academic path?
Academic paths are very difficult to plan, be open and follow your motivation.