Asia’s Rising Scientists: Pham Quang Cuong

As part of our monthly Asia’s Rising Scientists series, we talk to Pham Quang Cuong, assistant professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Pham Quang Cuong
Assistant professor at the School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


AsianScientist (June 9, 2015) – Assistant Professor Pham Quang Cuong grew up in Hanoi, Vietnam, before moving to France, where he completed bachelor and PhD degrees. After stints in Brazil and Japan, he joined Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where he writes algorithms that enable robots to carry out complex tasks independently.

1. How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?

Enable robots to autonomously perform complex tasks, such as assembling small electronic parts or walking on uneven terrains.

2. Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.

We conceived an algorithm that finds feasible motions for robots in extremely challenging situations. For example, imagine a bottle placed on a tray, which you want to move from one side of a narrow horizontal window to the other side, like a waiter.

Current algorithms cannot find any feasible motion: either the bottle would hit the window frame, or, if it is tilted to pass through the window, would slide or tumble from the tray.

Our algorithm is able to automatically discover motion where the bottle is accelerated as it goes through the window, thereby creating inertial forces that keep it from falling from the tray. Check out a video of our work in action:

Enabling a robot to balance like a human requires some fine physics theory.
Enabling a robot to balance like a human requires some fine physics theory. Credit: Pham Quang Cuong.

3. What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?

I hope our research will help increase automatization in industries that still heavily rely on manual labor (such as electronics assembly, food processing, etc.), which in turn can make the working conditions in these industries less strenuous, while increasing industrial output.

4. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?

My PhD degree was in neuroscience. The topic of my postdoc was to leverage knowledge in neuroscience to better control robots. I did a bit of that at the beginning, but eventually ended up doing mostly robotics.

I like robotics because it combines knowledge from many disciplines: from mathematics, to physics, to computer science, to neuroscience, to engineering.

5. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?

My biggest problem in robotics is not scientific, but ethical—my research might eventually lead to industrial robots that steal jobs from workers, or to military robots that kill people.

Pham's robot maneuvering in a very human-like way—will they one day take over  our jobs?
Pham’s robot maneuvering in a very human-like way—will they one day take over our jobs? Credit: Pham Quang Cuong.

6. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix it?

The academic research community seems to be less engaged in societal debates as compared to some decades ago. For example, in 1966, 5,000 scientists signed a petition that contributed to obtaining an international ban on biological and chemical weapons. Nowadays, there is no such large movement from the scientific community against robotic weapons, which can even be as harmful as biological and chemical weapons to civilian populations.

We need to promote more debates and engagement from scientists, perhaps through workshops in international conferences such as the one I helped organize last year.

7. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?

Probably an activist, as you might have guessed 🙂

8. Outside of work, what do you do to relax? Do you have any interests and hobbies?

I try to read Murakami’s novels in Japanese. I also play football and am learning to play the guitar.

9. If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?

When automatization results in productivity gains, most of the time, these gains do not translate into a betterment of working conditions. Worse, sometimes, workers get laid off and the remaining ones are forced to work faster, more strenuously, in sync with the new machines. I think this is mainly because of the private property of the means of production under capitalism. So, if I had the power, I would eradicate capitalism, so that my robotics research can actually benefit workers.

10. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?

Be concerned about the societal consequences of your research and engage in societal debates in order to prevent possible harmful uses.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Pham Quang Cuong.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Leonard graduated from Monash University with a degree in communications. He enjoys reading about science and nature.

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