American University of Beirut

Robotics take center stage - inside look at Kim Baraka’s academic journey

The American University of Beirut (AUB) has always sought to be a globally distinctive, exemplary institution of higher education that trains ethical leaders for just, peaceful, resilient, and relevant societies. The Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering and Architecture (MSFEA) is a great example of that mission. MSFEA empowers individuals to forge their own meaningful life paths by addressing humanity's most difficult challenges via education and research of the highest caliber. 

Today's post honors Kim Baraka, MSFEA's electrical and computer engineering graduate. He is currently an assistant professor in the computer science department at the Free University (VU) in Amsterdam, and a member of the Social Artificial Intelligence group.  

Before joining VU, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. He holds a dual PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon, Portugal and a master's in robotics from CMU. His research interests lie at the intersection of artificial Intelligence, robotics, and social sciences, with the aim to develop novel algorithmic tools to support richer interactions between humans and robots. As a professionally trained contemporary dancer, he also actively researches new frontiers in robotics that draw inspiration from the performing arts. 

“I see it as a playground. There is no fixed recipe on how to go about tackling research problems, and no fixed way to think about a problem, which is both scary and exciting." Commented Kim. “It's such a privilege for me to be able to decide what to work on, something that not a lot of people get. This freedom comes with more hard work. It also means that you need to write grants and get funding and whatnot. But ultimately, I think it is very rewarding and exciting to come up with your own research project." 

This freedom that Kim finds in the research field allowed him to combine his two passions, robotics and dance, “I've been a dancer for my entire life. I began ballet when I was seven years old, and I have been performing as a contemporary dancer since 2008. I've always considered my engineering degree from MSFEA and my dancing to be totally independent entities. But this is now changing!" 

Kim did not always have his eyes on AI and robotics early on in his career. After graduating from MSFEA, Kim had considered continuing his master's degree in computer science or engineering, and once completed, he would pursue his PhD in the same field. However, this path was not interesting to him. He wanted a more interdisciplinary approach. He realized that “if I do my PhD in electrical or telecommunication engineering, I would be extremely specialized in a field I am not super passionate about."  

He then found that the robotics field holds more diversity for him; it integrates knowledge from different areas and opens the doors for more interdisciplinary opportunities. “Robotics and AI was more about connecting different bodies of knowledge rather than restricting myself to get specialized in one single direction. Robotics and AI are a relatively new science, taking the world by storm." 

“For my doctoral thesis, my goal was to design a tool that would give autistic children a fundamental foundation for social engagement and a safe setting to practice reading social cues before applying what they learned. After that, I realized I could use concepts and methods from dance to make contributions to the field of robotics." 

Kim then elaborated on the importance of this field and the contribution it makes on our everyday lives, “The reason I feel compelled to work in this field is not because of its huge popularity, but rather because I believe we have a moral obligation to shape the future of technology through thoughtful deliberation. My research team gives a lot of thought to how to create systems where the user is at the center of the design process. We ask questions such as: what problem does it solve? Does it bring up more issues to the table? And are there unintended consequences to what we developed?" 

According to Kim, these questions are important to keep in mind because the goal for robotics and AI is for experts to make the right choices and steer this field in a way that helps humanity instead of going against its core principles. 

At the end, Kim shared words of encouragement and wisdom to the younger generation pursuing a career in a similar field. “Don't make sacrifices for your career without trying to pursue what you like first! As a researcher you can even create a new field in your discipline, like I did! If you feel like you don't fit in a box, come up with a crazy idea and have the courage to pursue it. It's better to approach everything with passion rather than caution." 

We cannot begin to express how proud we are to see our alumni making good use of what AUB and MSFEA have offered them and forging a career that leaves an impact on the world. Thank you Kim Baraka and we hope your future holds even more successful endeavors!  

Check out Kim Baraka's website for a closer look at his past and ongoing projects and make sure to follow him on twitter: @kimbaraka.  

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