Associate Professor John Thangarajah is a self-confessed technophile who’s looking forward to a world where artificial intelligence can improve our daily lives.
With his research into artificial intelligence, he sees potential to make a significant difference in the defence and emergency management sectors.
We spoke to him to find out more about his passion for this increasingly relevant area of IT.
What do you do at RMIT?
I’m an Associate Professor in Artificial Intelligence within the School of Science and my work is focused on conducting research in a range of topics in artificial intelligence (AI).
I also teach programming and specialist AI courses in both undergraduate and postgraduate programs; supervise a number of projects in smart systems product development; and I’m the program coordinator for the Bachelor of Computer Science.
In addition to this, I manage and contribute to industry and Government-funded research projects and have been part of nearly $1.5 million worth of research funding in the last five years.
As an educator, I aim to inspire and challenge the next generation of computer scientists through exciting projects using technology such as the Microsoft Kinect, Occulus Rift, Lego Mindstorms, Myo bands, Sphero bots, various Parrot drones, and the most exciting of them all: the Nao humanoid robots.
The Nao robots are state-of-the-art mini human-like robots that embody all the different aspects of AI. They are growing in popularity, for example in assisting kids with autism, and have tremendous potential.
These projects, which are open to students in computer science and information technology across both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, allow students to self-learn and gain exposure to cutting-edge technology.
Tell me about your current research focus. What have you discovered so far?
I am currently working on four main aspects of artificial intelligence: agent oriented software development (how we build and construct intelligent systems); agent reasoning (how can programs behave in smart ways); agent testing (how do we provide assurance that the systems will work); and intelligent games (what sort of AI techniques can be employed in computer games).
Together with my project team, our primary focus has been on developing a methodology for eliciting and modelling tactical behaviour.
The potential application areas include computer-based military simulations as well as bushfire evacuation simulations.
We are also working on ways of extending our methodology to include team tactical behaviours and to investigate techniques for measuring and verifying the accuracy of the design models.
This project has been primarily funded by the Defence Science Technology Group over the last four years.
Overall, my goal is to contribute towards a future where machines, driven by intelligent software, can work together with humans to improve our quality of life.
What initially drew you to this research and what is it that continues to excite you about it?
I love technology and confess I am a technophile.
I’ve got the latest iPhone, Samsung phone, iPad, and Samsung tablet. I have a Macbook Pro, an iMac, a Windows-based laptop, a Linux laptop, a mini PC, two android PCs, an Xbox one, a Nintendo WII, a PlayStation and an Apple watch.
I have more wi-fi devices connected to a home network than one can imagine, have cameras set up in my home and air conditioners that I can turn on and off even when I’m not in the house.
Yes, I’m crazy for technology and in particular I’m fascinated by intelligent software, so it is really no surprise I’ve ended up where I am now.
What excites me is the rate at which hardware advancement is accelerating and as a result, it continues to open doors to "the impossible" in terms of software technology.
For example, the latest iPhone or android phone fits in your pocket and has capabilities that are so much more powerful than the desktop computers we depended on not so long ago.
Just 10 years ago, having a world of mobile apps and information at our fingertips was unimaginable.
Another cool technology that is accelerating fast is glass. Most consumer technology is enabled by glass and the more sophisticated it gets, the more intelligent the technology.
Ultimately, I want my research to pave the way for RMIT to be at the forefront of intelligent software advancement.
What are the burgeoning areas in this field, i.e. where are the jobs?
Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer at Microsoft UK, recently claimed that AI is the most important technology that anybody on the planet is working on today.
I could not agree more. AI techniques will be a fundamental aspect of any technology. It’s already the major focus for IT giants such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon and there are more and more companies increasing their effort to employ AI-savvy graduates.
According to a recent report by Transparency market research, in 2014 the global artificial intelligence market was worth about $126 billion, and is expected to grow to a value of almost $3 trillion by 2024, at a growth rate of about 36 per cent a year.
There are so many application areas such as search engines, social media platforms, data analytics, self-driving cars, autonomous drones and aircrafts, optimisation platforms, wearable devices, games, healthcare, simulation platforms, robotics and dialog systems and many more.
Among them, I am most excited about autonomous vehicles, both on our roads and airspace.
Story: Rebecca McGillivray