Why we research

Auke Jan Ijspeert

My master project shaped my career

Doing research is a great privilege. Given all the troubles in the world, I feel very lucky to work in academia, to be surrounded by bright people from all nationalities, and to interact with researchers from different disciplines. I love the possibility to dive deep into one subject (in my case the study of animal locomotion and its replication in biorobots), ask questions, test hypotheses, and gradually contribute to a better understanding of a topic.

I was trained as a physicist at EPFL, and I was always interested in biophysics and computational neuroscience, as well as in constructing things. After that I had the chance to do a master in the Department of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh, which covered topics in AI, computational neuroscience and robotics.

My academic life was very much influenced by an article that I read over the Christmas break during my master. I came across a fantastic article in the Scientific American written by the famous neuroscientist Sten Grillner, in which he described his research on lamprey locomotion (an eel-like fish) and how with colleagues he had developed neuromechanical simulations to study how neural circuits interact with the body and the environment to generate agile locomotion. I was so fascinated by that simulation work that I decided to do a master project in which I replicated the simulation and used genetic algorithms (that I had just learned about) to optimize the neural circuits. I was so excited by the topic that I transformed my master project into a PhD thesis in which I also looked at the locomotion of the salamander and the transition from aquatic to terrestrial locomotion. I was lucky to find two kind professors (John Hallam and David Willshaw) who were willing to supervise and guide me.

More than twenty years ago, I was fortunate to open my own lab at EPFL, the biorobotics lab. We study animal locomotion using robotics and neuromechanical simulations. We also develop new types of animal-like robots for various applications, and have projects in which we try to help people who have limited mobility using actuated exoskeletons and assistive furniture.

I love my current research. I think it has a perfect mix of science and engineering. It addresses important questions of how animals move and how locomotion has changed during vertebrate evolution. And it also has creative aspects, making new robots and new neuromechanical simulations, which I find very exciting.

I also care about societal aspects, in particular helping people with limited mobility. Here, academia offers the chance to perform “blue sky” research and to explore ideas with uncertain outcomes. In our case, we do this by exploring how we could create robotic furniture (e.g. chairs and tables that can move and pick-up objects) in order to make an assistive environment for wheelchair users. We are not yet sure whether this will lead to commercial products, but we feel it is important to investigate which are potential technical solutions, how they could be used, and how potential end-users perceive our assistive technology. Indeed doing research in a university is interesting as we can explore topics that are high-risk, high-gain, and that might only lead to applications in the very long term (as opposed to industry, where most companies need to make profits in a short time window and with high probability).

To conclude, I would like to offer a few suggestions for young people considering to do research in academia:

At the time of writing, Auke Jan Ijspeert is a full professor at the EPFL (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne), and head of the Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob).