PODCAST: In Conversation with Dr. Joshua Marshall at Ingenuity Labs

Posted on February 18, 2020


Listen to Dr. Joshua Marshall, Interim Director of the Ingenuity Labs Research Institute, talk about the lab’s collaborative approach to creating intelligent systems and robotic machines that enhance human productivity, safety, performance, and quality of life.

The Ingenuity Labs Research Institute is a collaborative research initiative at Queen’s University focused on creating intelligent systems and robotic machines that enhance human productivity, safety, performance, and quality of life. The lab brings together researchers from across engineering disciplines and beyond.

  • The Ingenuity Labs Research Institute is a new collaborative research initiative at Queen's University focused on creating intelligent systems and robotic machines that enhance human productivity, safety, performance, and quality of life. Expertise in the lab spans a continuum from artificial intelligence, machine learning and cyber-human systems to robot control, smart sensors and mechatronic devices.

    Today we're speaking with Dr. Joshua Marshall, the interim director of the institute. Dr. Marshall was also instrumental in building the multidisciplinary Off-road Robotics research group at Queen's, and is also a founding member of the NSERC Canadian Robotics Network. Welcome to the podcast, Josh.

    JM: Alright, Nanci, thanks for having me.

    I'd like to start by having you tell me a little bit about the institute and how it came to be.

    JM: So the idea for the new research Institute at Queen's, focusing on robotics and intelligence systems really came out of a leadership team within the faculty of engineering applied science, but precipitated really by Mr. Bruce Mitchell indicating that he would be making a significant philanthropic gift to our faculty. And I chaired the working group, the group of enthusiastic, experienced like-minded researchers who came together for a lot of super fun brainstorming sessions and created this vision and direction for what is now the Ingenuity Labs Research Institute.

    What we realized was that Queen's really already has a strong cohort of researchers in the robotics and AI space within the faculty, but also around campus. But this group wasn't really a group; it wasn't really coordinating its activities. And so Ingenuity Labs is an attempt to bring these researchers together from across the campus to collaborate, to create synergies, share infrastructure, and make real tangible impacts.

    And in the end, it was really Mr. Mitchell's gift that made all of this possible. He's funded an endowed chair position. He's provided startup funding for five junior faculty positions in robotics and AI, and enough seed funding to start the new space we have here in equipment, with some shared facilities, and seats for approximately 40 graduate researchers.

    You've got an amazing space here in Mitchell hall. I'm wondering if you can describe the facilities for us?

    JM: For sure. So if you spent any time at Queen's on the campus, you'll know that we have lots of beautiful old buildings with tons of little cozy rooms. Although these are fine for research offices and meetings, and relatively small pieces of equipment, they aren't particularly good when it comes to doing large robotic field experiments. And I like to say that robotics is really the means through which artificial intelligence acts on us and the world around us. And so we needed the space to build and test robots, and we needed something big and open. And so we've kept Ingenuity Labs here in Mitchell hall as a really a big open and shared, and reconfigurable space. There's room to build an obstacle course for mobile robots. We've got a really high-end Vicon motion capture system. It can track these little retroflective markers to within millimeters. And we've got a workshop with a laser cutter and 3D printers and other tools for manufacturing robot parts or testing out new designs.

    And finally, and I think this is really important, there's a collision space, which has sort of reconfigurable seating, tables that we use for hosting talks – like recently, we had Amazon robotics, and we've had some other companies and speakers. It's also a kind of a place where students can break out and brainstorm, facilitate collaboration. I don't think that there's a room or wall in here that doesn't have a whiteboard on it. So it's a really excellent and state of the art facility.

    How'd you come up with collision space? That's kind of interesting.

    JM: I don't think we invented that term. I think that's been around a little while, but it's a place where people can kind of collide, if you like, bring ideas from different places and, and meet together. So we've tried to keep that feeling here.

    That's really cool. And I think it really speaks to the multidisciplinary nature of the facility as well. So you mentioned a lot about robotics, and of course, artificial intelligence seems to be a major focus here.

    JM: AI or artificial intelligence, it's a really broad term and lots of people have a debate about what that actually means, but there's no question that what I think we're referring to as, you know, intelligent systems, are changing the way we live and work. Our focus is really on applied AI – so, the application of these technologies and artificial intelligence, which have come to become quite popular in the last little while. They've been around for quite awhile. Perhaps most visible these days is an example of the commercial passenger vehicles that you can now buy – autonomous vehicles that do sort of drive by themselves in certain scenarios.

    And I've been working in that field for quite a while, but a little bit behind the scenes – in applications such as in mining, and planetary space exploration, and defense. But bringing this technology to the public now is a little bit more challenging, but certainly has brought some attention to the AI and robotics space.So whatever has made this application and the myriad of other applications of AI possible is really two things. I think the advent of really fast and inexpensive computers, and then the widely available access to data that we didn't necessarily have in the past. So putting these two things together is something that we're taking advantage of. A lot of people are, and I think our interest really is in leveraging these tools from AI to create new technologies that make our lives better.

    Tell me a little bit about some of the research projects that are taking place right now at the institute.

    JM: The research that takes place here falls under three categories, or three themes we're calling it. The first relates to the human sensing and assistive devices. This is where robots like exoskeletons or companion robots,and wearables are interacting with humans, gathering information.

    The second category of research happening here at Ingenuity Labs relates to smart environments and infrastructure. So, where we embed sensors and robotics technology into buildings and systems that then adapt to our needs and improve safety, or provide some other tangible benefit.

    And then finally we have a group of researchers that are working on intelligent mobile systems. So, these include robotic vehicles, UAVs, other mobile machines, for example – with applications in mining and defense, municipal vehicles. So we have a strategic corporate outreach program now it's in the works, and this includes a focus on attempting to incubate those new technologies that we develop as much as possible here in Kingston.

    You're bringing together researchers from across engineering but also in other disciplines. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that, and why that's so important.

    JM: Although the initial gift to Queen's from Mr. Mitchell was to the Faculty of Engineering Applied Science, we don't believe that we can or we should do this without integral involvement from researchers from outside of FEAS. For example, we believe that a connection with the School of Computing is really important, if we're going to focus on AI. Computing has a strong cohort already of researchers doing excellent work in this area, and we want to work together with them to bring Queen's to the forefront in AI and robotics. Currently we have three faculty members from the School of Computing that are participating here at Ingenuity Labs. And we hope to have more future.

    We've also made connections with the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies. And we have some joint projects and ongoing discussions with one researcher from the Faculty of Law, as well as a group within the School of Business.

    So although our core expertise lies within robotics and applied AI, we're very much keen to work together with those who have complimentary expertise. And this is going to be, I think, a key to our success as an institute and if Queen's is really going to compete in this quickly evolving field.

    And how do students fit into that picture?

    JM: Great question. I like this one. So, a key aspect of Ingenuity Labs and our vision and philosophy is collaboration – both within and outside of our own fields of expertise. And we strongly believe that together we can be better. And one group that I believe significantly benefits from this culture of collaboration and working together is students.

    At Ingenuity Labs, we are bringing together research groups from the different departments – so for example, in mechanical, electrical computing, civil, kinesiology, and beyond. And we're sitting these students physically together in our space. They eat lunch together, they participate in our internal seminar series together, they learn about each other's perspectives and aptitudes. They work together on projects that are, I think, more representative to how it actually is in the real world. I think as a result of this new initiative, we hope to attract even more of the world's brightest students to join us here in Kingston, bring their expertise to our community, build lives and build businesses here in Kingston.

    And finally, tell me what's your favorite part of being a director of the institute?

    JM: My own favorite part about being the director at Ingenuity Labs is getting the opportunity to sort of shape the positive and inclusive workplace culture that we've kind of developed here. And you can almost feel it when you walk through the space. I come from a multidisciplinary background myself, so collaborating outside of my own discipline isn't really new to me, but it may be for some. But for me, trying to change the culture of how researchers work together, is something that I'm really passionate about. And there's lots in it for lots of people here, but I think the team is really a great thing that we built here.

    And we have an opportunity to build a new culture of collaboration, collegiality, which together with all of the exceptional research, I think makes me particularly excited about coming to work every day.

    Oh, that's great. Thanks so much for speaking with us today, Josh.

    JM: Thanks again.