Solid science and rubber duckies: an interview with Liam Paull

UdM, Montréal, May 5, 2022: Liam Paull, professor at the University of Montreal and one of Duckietown’s founders, talks about his role and experiences with Duckietown.

When rubber duckies meet the road: an interview with Prof. Liam Paull

Liam Paull, professor at the University of Montreal in Quebec, and one of the very founders of Duckietown, shares below his unique perspective about Duckietown’s journey and its origin.

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Good morning, Liam.

Hello.

Thank you very much for accepting to have this little chat.
Could you tell us something about you?

Sure. So my name is Liam Paull. I’m a professor at the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. I teach in the computer science Department, And I do research on robotics.

Ok and when was the first time you “came across” Duckietown?

Well, I’m actually one of the creators of Duckietown, So I didn’t come across it as much! The origin story of Duckietown is kind of interesting, But I probably forgot some of the details. It must have been about 2015. And myself, Andrea Censi, and a few others were interested to get more teaching experience. We were all postdocs or research scientists at MIT at the time. I guess we started brainstorming ideas, and then roughly around that time, I switched positions at MIT. I was previously a postdoc in John Leonard’s group working on marine robotics, and then I switched to become part of Danielle Lerous lab and lead an autonomous driving project. And so somehow the stars just aligned. That the right topic for this class that we would teach would be autonomous driving. Yeah, the Ducky thing is kind of a separate thing. Actually, Andrea had started this other thing that was making videos for people to publicize their work at a top robotics conference Called the international conference robotics automation, and somehow had the idea that every single video that was submitted should have a rubber Ducky in it. And this was for scale or something.
There was some kind of reason behind it I sort of forget. But anyway, so the branding kind of caught fire.
When we were building the class, we agreed the one constraint was that there should be duckies involved somehow, and the rest is kind of history!

What’s your relationship with Duckietown today? Like, do you use it in particular for some activities, your daily work or some project?

Yeah, for sure. I guess I use it in a number of ways. Maybe the first way is that I teach a class every fall called autonomous vehicles, Where the Duckietown platform is the platform that we use for the experiments and labs in the class. So just like the original class, Every student gets a robot that they assemble, and then we learn about computer vision and autonomous driving and all the good stuff related to robotics. But I also use the platform for some amount of research. Also in my group, I believe that there’s a lot of interesting research directions that come from a kind of standardized, small scale, accessible autonomous driving platform like this. Recently, most of the work that we’ve been doing in terms of research has been about training agents in simulation and then deploying them in the real world. So this isa nice setup for that because we have a simulator that’s very easy, fast and lightweight to train in, and then we have the environment that’s also really accessible. So, yeah, so we’ve been doing some research on that front.

So would you recommend Duckieown to colleagues or students of yours? And if yes, why.

Of course. I think that’s what’s nice. Going back to the original motivation behind building Duckietowng and some of the tenets: thee guiding principle for us was this idea that to learn robotics, you have to get your hands on a robot. And we are also very adamant that it should be that every student should have their own robot. With teams of robots or going into the lab and only being able to use the robot at certain hours. It’s something funny.

You don’t develop the same kind of personal relationship. It sounds weird, but it’s true. Like when you have your own thing that you’re working with every day, you have some kind of bond with that thing, and you develop some kind of love or hate or whatever the case may be depending on how things are going on that particular day. So I think that with this set up, we have a platform where we’ve scaled things down and made things cost effective, to be able to do that. We built an engaging, experimental platform where it’s totally, I think, reasonable for most University budgets to be able to get their hands on the hardware.

“I believe that there’s a lot of interesting research directions that come from a standardized, small scale, accessible autonomous driving platform like Duckietown.”

Liam Paull

The other big piece is the actual teaching materials that we’ve developed. And I think that we have some good stuff. It could be better. Some stuff could be better, but that’s where we also need the community to come in. I mean, if we have this standardized platform and lots of people start using it and building educational experiences around the platform, then the entire thing just starts to get better and better for everybody. And it just grows into a very nice thing where you can also pick and choose the pieces that you want to include for your particular class, and you can customize the experience of what your class is going to look like using all of the resources that are out there. Also, the other part that I’ve really tried to cultivate, this is sort of a new thing. When we ran the first class at MIT, it was really an isolated thing. But in the subsequent iterations of the class, like myself and others have been in different places around the world, whether it’s Matt Walter at TTIC or Jacopo and Andrea at ETH. So we tried to turn the class into this kind of global experience, where you feel like you’re part of something that’s bigger than just the class that you’re taking at the specific University.

And I think students really like that. We’ve experimented with different models where people do projects with other students from other universities or even just feeling part of the global community. I think it’s a very fun and engaging. Students are so connected these days. They’re so plugged in. They like this aspect of feeling like there’s a bit more of a broad social aspect, too. So I think these are some of the elements that this platform project experience brings to the table that I don’t see replicated and too many other setups.

Anything else you would like to add about Duckietown and it’s uses?

I didn’t mention specifically about the MOOC. One of the core missions of this project from the onset has been that it’s accessible. Both in terms of hardware but also in terms of software. And part of what that means to us Is that no matter where you are, no matter who you are, you should be able to get the hardware and you should be able to use the educational resources to learn. And part of the motivation for that Was that we saw that while we were at MIT. When you’re at a place like MIT you are extremely privileged and if you come from a background of less privilege, you see the discrepancy. In some sense, it’s palpable. Part of that, I guess, was that we don’t even necessarily want it to be a prerequisite that students should be enrolled in universities in order to be able to address the platform. So we built this massive online open source course through edx, which is also an open source provider Where people can, regardless of their background or regardless of their situation, they can sign up for this thing, and it’s a creative set of materials that also have exercises to interact with the robot that anybody can do, Regardless of whether they’re at a University or not.
I think this is the next step for us in making the platform accessible to all, and we’re going to continue to run iterations of this thing. But I also think that this is an exciting objective that very much fits in the mission of what we’re trying to do with this project.

This was great thank you for your time!

Awesome. Great. Thank you for your time. Bye.

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