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Georgia Chalvatzaki: Robots being able to interact in human environments

«The goal is for robots to be able to act safely within the human space and to be able to adapt to the needs of their users» Georgia Chalvatzaki said in an interview with tilosnews.eu, where she explains how a girl from Dodecanese did not give up her dream, fought for it, while she continues to work intensively on robotics.

Georgia Chalvatzaki, of the Nikitopoulos family, is a Dodecanese robotics scientist from Tilos. She was born in Athens and grew up in Rhodes. She finished school in Rhodes and completed her university studies in Athens. Georgia studied electrical engineering at the National Technical University of Athens and she obtained her PhD in the Laboratory of Robotics and Automation of the National Technical University of Athens. Upon completion of her PhD in 2019, she became a postdoctoral researcher at Darmstadt Technical University. Having received funding from the German Research Institute, she currently is having her own research team and is working on intelligent robotic systems and assistants.

How did robotics come about in your life?

As a child, I always had a fascination with learning; reading in particular was something I really enjoyed. I felt fulfilment through gaining knowledge and I always wanted to learn more and more. I was always a very highly performing student at school, and I can say that it was my absolute objective to be the best in class, setting very high standards on myself. Ever since I was in secondary school, I was fascinated by mathematics and physics and the way they can describe our world. When I was on my first year in high school my technology teacher, Mrs. Nikolaou, asked us to research on various innovation issues, and I was allocated in robotics. Since then I have researched, read and been convinced that this industry is the future of technological development, while I realized that through robotics I could make a positive contribution to humanity, via assistance systems. Since then, my only goal was to study Robotics. I passed the national exam on 2006 and got a place at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering of the National Technical University of Athens.

Studying at the National Technical University of Athens, the financial crisis on 2009 and finally the graduation; how difficult was this journey?

I went to Athens in 2006. Life there is costly and difficult. As I come from a working class family, I had to work to be able to support my studies. I must confess that these years were very difficult, as my course was very demanding with assignments and workshops constantly. I usually was not able to attend the lectures due to extensive working hours. So, I had to spend many nights studying, trying to make up for my absence in class, making sure I was passing all my modules and meeting university demands. I had reached a point of exhaustion; got burnt out and I was even hospitalized due to overwork. I reached a point where I was frustrated with myself and was seriously considering giving it all up. Fortunately, with the moral support of my family and friends, I continued, and I did not miss on my teenage dream. After graduating in 2012, I considered the situation and whether I should carry on my studies abroad and specialize in Robotics or stay in Greece. Given my personal circumstances at that moment I had decided to stay in Greece.

So you decided to stay and obtain your Ph.D. in Greece. What was the subject, and what was your goal?

I applied for a pre-doctoral position at the Robotics and Automation Laboratory of the National Technical University of Athens, under the supervision of professors Konstantinos Tzafestas and Petros Maragos. The laboratory’s research topics concern the development of systems to assist people with mobility and cognitive problems and their wider research is in the field of human-robot interaction. My research was on developing algorithms for robotic support systems for elderly people when walking and helping autistic children develop communication skills through their interaction with humanoid robots. For example, from the data analysis, the algorithms I developed could detect the way the user walks, his speed, pathological conditions, such as Parkinson’s or other causes. Then I used this information to program the robot to adjust its movement to provide the best possible and safest support to the elderly.

Did you find your research being recognized in Greece and abroad?

My research results have been published in some of the best robotics conferences and journals in the world. This exceptional performance gave me the qualifications to go abroad. When I was about to obtain my PhD, I decided that the time had come to go abroad in order to expand my knowledge in the field of robotics. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to have a university career in Greece. There are not enough places for new academics, there is insufficient funding of universities and this is of course a long lasting policy of depreciation of public schools and universities, converting them from educating institutions into income generating machines. Abroad, or at least in many European countries, things are quite different.

And that’s how you ended up in Germany. Did you have any other offers? What is your position now and what are your goals?

Yes, I have been at the University of Darmstadt since October 2019. I came here to continue my specialization in robotics and especially combine Artificial Intelligence with Robotics under the supervision of one of the most important Robotics professors of recent years, Prof. Jan Peters. My research over here focuses on the use of modern artificial intelligence techniques, so that robotic systems can learn by observing the world and interacting with it and humans. My goal is to create algorithms so that robots can learn, through observation and analysis of multiple stimuli signals, to perform tasks to help our daily lives. Tasks such as offering medicines to the elderly, supporting nursing staff are some of the applications that I am interested in.

What is the goal for robotics right now?

The goal is always one. The robots to be able to act safely in the human space and to be able to adapt to the demands and needs of their users. This is a demanding field of research that recently brought me generous funding by the German Research Institute and permits me to start my own research team. It is a highly competitive program and I was one of 9 successful applications out of 91 in total. I am very grateful that I succeeded. I now have my own lab, and students that I personally supervise. The objective of my group is promoting research on intelligent robotic assistants. This was further recognized and I received the nomination for the title of AI-Newcomer 2021 in Germany.

What is the AI-Newcomer 2021 award and how important is it for your career?

This award is given by the German IT community in collaboration with the German Ministry of Education to young researchers up to the age of 35 years old, who are doing research in the field of artificial intelligence. This award has an honorary distinction and also offers benefits for the promotion and outreach of the winners’ research in the wider scientific community. Such a title would be a very important achievement for my scientific career and will help to be able to be promoted to professor in the future. Winning awards and obtaining funding matters a lot, as universities tend to invest in people who are widely recognized. Looking back where I started, this award would be a reward for that child from Dodecanese, who had a hard time but did not give up on their dream, fought hard for it and continues to work intensively. It is a great way for all these efforts to be recognized and to continue even more vigorously carrying out my research, but also to be an inspiration for the young children of our island and beyond.

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