CSpotlight: Seizing opportunities for achievement

Tanmay Agarwal is a computer science undergraduate student with an emphasis in robotics & AI. His ultimate goal is to build systems with novel technologies that create a lasting positive impact on the community. He has taken full advantage of the opportunities to learn, grown, and find his niche during his time at the University of Minnesota, including multiple internships, an undergraduate research position in the Interactive Robotics and Vision Lab, and involvement in student groups, including Atland Ventures, a student-run venture capital firm.

Why did you choose to study computer science at the University of Minnesota?

I have always had an ambition to build products or services that can impact a person's daily life. I was originally studying physics and quickly realized that the major lacked the consumer-centric aspect that I'm so passionate about. So, as I was exploring other options, I stumbled across something called artificial intelligence anthropology. In this area of study, I encountered people who were developing minimalistic canvases of technology that were capable of doing so many important things. This was the first “trigger” for me towards computer science. I found something that was intellectually challenging with a huge scope of research to explore that could also be leverage to help people and improve our society.

What specifically drew you to the areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning?

I am passionate about developing technologies that mimic human cognition. For example, one could use mathematical and statistical models to model and mimic how the human brain would interpret videos or signals received by the eyes, and then try to model it artificially for robots. I think this work will be very fulfilling and have positive results if done right. There are also lots of potential applications in fields like manufacturing, life sciences, and consumer robotics.

Tell us more about your research with the Interactive Robots and Vision Lab.

The research team, led by Dr. Junaed Sattar, works almost exclusively on underwater robots. I'm working to develop perception-based deep learning algorithms for underwater human-robot collaboration. My specific research involves predicting diver motion to improve diver following by robots underwater. These robots are meant to be assistive robots to help a diver who might be swimming for some conservation tasks or exploring the terrains of lakes and oceans. In order to perform these tasks, they need to follow these scuba divers to swim in a particular direction. However, the robots are currently unable to detect abrupt directional changes, such as turning left or right. I'm also tackling how to program the robot to lead the divers instead of just following them—this is something that is completely unexplored. The hope is to determine an algorithm where the robot is able to predict where the diver will swim to next, for example, 5 seconds ahead. In my research, I will show the robots a set of images or a video of the scuba diver swimming in different directions, with the goal of having the robot be able to predict where the diver is heading.

You've been able to partake in quite a few internships. What has been your favorite internship experience?

Each internship has served a different purposes for me because my career path has been very wavy so far. I think the most important internship for me would be at Starkey Hearing Technologies. The project I worked on was to develop a robotic arm that moves a hearing aid so that it produces the same motion signature as a human walking. This robotic arm would then help engineers to develop algorithms for the earpiece. I went into this position as a physics major with zero computer science experience (although I was taking online courses in robotics and AI at the time).

Tell us about your work with Atland Ventures.

Atland Ventures is a fully student-run venture capital firm. It is legally separate from the university but it is composed of all undergraduate students from the University of Minnesota. As a venture capital firm, we raised about a million dollars from alumni investors. I started as an analyst with the group in February 2019 and have now moved up to be vice president of stakeholder relationships. I have always been interested in entrepreneurship, as my dad ran his own business. I was raised in an environment of “leading your own ventures” and “being your own host and taking risky shots.” As I continue to exploring my interest in technology, I am also very interested in how to commercialize technologies. I am conscious about being an engineer who focuses on making products that the public can actually use.

What inspired you to start your own podcast “Undergraduate AI?”

In the computer science community, there is a lot of talk about working for Google, Microsoft, and the like. There are also a lot of podcasts going on about what makes a good “software engineer.” However, I could not find discussions about being a good computer science researcher, so I started my own podcast! "Undergraduate AI" interviews professors and industry researchers to provide insight, advice, and guidance to undergrads hoping to build a career in AI. I began interviewing professors at the University of Minnesota, and my current episode is actually on my research professor Junaed Sattar!

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

I think computer science is currently a field that tends to get a bit crowded, especially in AI and robotics. Don't let this intimidate you...it will be all right! There will always be people who end up doing really well really fast. However, it is important to remember that everyone learns at a different pace and grows at their own speed. Don’t judge yourself based on others and don’t be scared of others’ accomplishments, especially when you’re just getting started with the program.

What are your plans after graduation?

I have applied to some graduate programs and am waiting for the response back now. I hope to enroll in a master's program, but I am also looking for a full-time job opportunity—so we'll see! In the near the future, I want to apply for a Ph.D. program. Long-term, I definitely want to pursue my path as a researcher in robotics.