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A Summer Internship With Robot Cats

Franklin & Marshall College senior Zaigham Randhawa secured his own summer internship in robotics, and applied what he learned in his two majors — computer science and mathematics.

Computer science helped him code a cat robot while multidimensional equations helped him program commands for the robot to mimic movements made by its human user.

"Initially, I started to work on establishing a method to help the cat communicate with a computer," he said. He pointed first to a program on his laptop, and then to the electronic feline, headless (the head accidently broke off) and mostly skeletal except for computer parts.

Rongzhong Li's (also known as Rz) robotics start-up, Petoi, designed and built the cat robot. Zaigham, who wanted to work in robotics, watched a YouTube video that featured the "catbot" and decided to contact Rz.

"I asked him if I could help him with his robotics startup over the summer," said Zaigham, who qualified for funding through F&M's Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development. "Rz was impressed by my initiative and invited me to Pittsburgh to work with him."

Once Zaigham got the cat and the computer program to converse, he considered how to apply the communication protocols he created to other applications.

"It motivated me to learn and explore, which introduced me to a lot of new fields in computer science that I was unfamiliar with initially," he said. "I implemented voice recognition, computer vision, and a simulation which copies the cat as it walks in real life."

Associate Professor and Chair of Mathematics Christina Weaver said, "Mathematics, when implemented with computer algorithms, does a lot of surprising things. Really, so much of technology has mathematics under the hood."

Zaigham is now investigating a new field of artificial intelligence called reinforcement learning. He plans to create a virtual model of the robot.

"My plan is to train the robot to walk by using reinforcement learning, then take what the virtual robot learns and put that into the cat," he said.

The experience encouraged him to consider computer vision and machine learning in his post-graduate pursuits.

A high-tech hub, Pittsburgh has plenty of opportunities. Zaigham visited the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, engaged in a number of technology events, and networked, which lead to job interviews at a couple of technology firms.

"It was an incredibly transformative opportunity," he said. "I learned so much, experienced so many new things, met incredible people, and saw new possibilities. And all of this wouldn't have happened without the funding given to me by F&M."

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