Martin Peniak has gone on quite a journey since arriving in Plymouth from his native Slovakia. Along the way he has developed autonomous Mars rovers and a cognitive robotics toolkit, and found and received great success and acclaim for his work far and wide – a bit of a difference from rollerblading to work in a fish processing plant in the middle of the night!
From a fish factory to programming Mars rovers
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. “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 worked solidly for the next three months.
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 a professor at the University’s School of Biomedical and Biological Sciences, and unbeknown to him, he had just planted a seed in Martin’s mind.
“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 the University of Plymouth through the UCAS system.”
Martin was awarded the 2008 Revell Research Systems prize as the top final year student on the BSc (Hons) Computing course.
With a reference supplied by Professor Davies, Martin secured a place on the BSc (Hons) Computing degree and, true to his vision, began a demanding dual life, studying during the day, before rollerblading across the city to work in the fish processing plant until 3am. 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 program 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 to an official collaboration for the University with ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team.
“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.
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 the iCub.
Martin's research involved exploring the applications of parallel GPU computing to various areas of cognitive robotics focusing particularly on action and language acquisition in the humanoid robot 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 NVIDIA, a global leader in visual and high-performance computing, and shared with them some of his research results attained with their graphics 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, and the establishment of an NVIDIA laboratory at the University.
Martin developed a cognitive robotics toolkit called Aquila that enabled him to design complex GPU accelerated artificial neural networks allowing the iCub humanoid robot to perform complex actions and understand simple language. The GPU computing has allowed him to develop multiple time-scales recurrent neural networks of previously unseen scale and complexity, which resulted in the development of a model capable of controlling all the 51 degrees of freedom of the iCub as well as its vision and language processing.
On completion of his PhD, Martin presented his work in an inspirational TEDx talk in Bratislava attended by around a thousand people that then gave him a standing ovation. This was truly one of his greatest moments!
My vision of the future
"Whilst finishing my PhD thesis I was approached by vision systems company Cortexica. I started as a Parallel Computing Software Engineer and after two years I became Head of Innovation. I love my job and I am doing anything from programming, research, attending technical conferences, exploring new fields such as augmented and virtual reality but also staying up to date with the latest advancements in machine learning. This allows me to bring new innovations to the company, which later leads to new products."
"The University of Plymouth completely changed my life and the life of my family too. It allowed me to pursue my dreams and convinced me that nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself and you work hard."
Did you know?
- The first known robot was created around 400-350 BC by the mathematician Archytas and was an artificial bird.
- The first digital and programmable robot was invented by George Devol in 1954 and was named the Unimate.
- Robots have replaced humans in performing repetitive and dangerous tasks which humans prefer not to do, or are unable to do because of size limitations, or which take place in extreme environments such as outer space or the bottom of the sea.
- The most beloved robot characters in motion picture history are C-3PO and R2-D2, who made their debut appearance in the first Star Wars film in 1977.