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Salah is designing an arm for the Ai-Da artist robot

Alice Ostapjuk

As the world waits to meet the first ever robot artist, IconInc resident Salah, from The Glassworks, is working away in his apartment designing Ai-Da’s robotic arm. We caught up with Salah to find out about this impressive project and how he got involved…

Q: Firstly we’d like to know a little more about you Salah. You’re an international student. Can you tell us what country you’ve come from, to study here in Leeds?

Salah: Egypt, I’m Egyptian.

Q: And how long have you lived at IconInc?

Salah: Three years now. I did one year at The Edge and now I’m in my second year at The Glassworks. But I’ve been in Leeds for four years in total.

Q: Which university do you attend?

Salah: The University of Leeds.

Q: And what degree course are you studying?

Salah: It’s called Mechatronics and robotics, it’s a three year course. And it’s a very intense course but really well regarded.

I did a lot of research about the course and that’s what brought me to Leeds in the first place. I like that there’s a lot of applied work so I’m getting lots of hands on experience. There’s theory too but, in my opinion, the more hands on your course is, the better you’ll be.

I’ve done an engineering foundation year too.

Q: Have you always had an interest in engineering and robotics?

Salah: From day one my parents wanted me to get into construction because my dad works in that industry. So throughout my education before university, I thought I wanted to go into construction but then I became more curious about how remote control cars work and all of that. So I was leaning towards electrical engineering, and then I one day I just woke up and was like I want to do robotics.

Q: You’re working on a really cool (and absolutely astounding) project at the moment, designing and building the arm for the Ai-Da robot. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Salah: Ai-Da will be the first robot artist in the world. The robot has several different features like speech etc and I am working on one of those features – the artistic side – with my friend.

So the robot will have cameras in her eyes to be able to make eye contact and track the person in front of her. We’re going to take that as an input to our system and basically we’re working on the whole process from seeing a person to sketching that person’s image out.

We’re working with computer vision, which is all about face detection and tracking. We’re making a system that will analyse every single pixel in an image (there’s about 700,000 pixels in an image), and then we’re extracting the data we need from that. We’ve developed algorithms to be able to organise how the image is set out and to create a path for the robotic arm to be able to sketch. We write the code, the algorithm, and then we save it onto a mini computer, and then that computer executes all of the code, and controls the motors which drive the arm and make it draw.

If you haven’t come across the Ai-Da robot yet, check out this article:

The new Picasso? Meet Ai-Da the robot artist

Ai-Da sketches subjects who pose for her by using her robotic arm and a pencil A microchip in her eye processes the image to draw using Artificial Intelligence The robot is then able to draw what she sees in realistic portraits of her subjects Designer Aidan Meller is working with Cornish-based Engineered Arts, who made realistic robots to promote the HBO show Westworld A British arts engineering company says it has created the world's first AI robot that can draw people by using a microchip in her eye.

Q: How did you get involved in the project? Was that through university?

Salah: A course mate actually linked me up with Aidan Meller, the art dealer who’s in charge of the project. This is in a sense, the same as my final year project – I’m using the same technology. So I was put in touch with Aidan, and he came here to IconInc and sat with me to go through the project.

Then I got my friend involved as this isn’t a one man job, it’s more like a five man job but we’re doing this with just the two of us. My friend was also working on a similar technology for his final project and we work really well together so it seemed like the best way forward.

I don’t think you’ll ever see me down here in the lounge again until the end of this project!

Q: What have you enjoyed most about working on the project?

Salah: What’s very satisfying is when we work on a software for hours and then we see the visual output. That’s very overwhelming and satisfying to see. It’s the sense of innovating too and coming up with solutions. This is completely new, we can’t really just go on Youtube and look up the answer. We have to come up with solutions on our own because this hasn’t been done before.

Q: And have there been any challenges along the way?

Salah: You can’t even begin to understand how many problems we’ve faced during this project! And you can’t just Google it to find an answer. So we’ve had loads of brainstorming meetings between us to see what problem is and to find the solution. Then we tackle it and if that solution doesn’t work, we have to try something else. There’s been a lot of trial and error!

The ‘wrist’ of the arm was interesting too because part of the brief was that the arm needed to be as human-like as possible so getting that realistic, human movement was challenging.

Q: Media from all around the world have been getting in touch with you lately. Are you able to tell us who you’ve been interviewed by so far?

Salah: The Guardian and the BBC – both radio and there will be TV. There are three press days lined up too, which will be done when we attach the arm to the robot. The staff here have been really helpful in booking out the private study rooms for the interviews too, as thanks for that.

Q: What are your career aspirations? And do your plans for the future involve any more projects like this?

Salah: Honestly, you never know. If someone had told me at the beginning of this academic year, that in summer I’d be involved in this project, I would never have believed it. You never know what the future holds.

This is my dream job really, and I’ll tell you why I’m particularly passionate about this project. I originally chose to work on a technology that could produce art for my final university project because as a child I wanted to be an artist but it didn’t work out. So I was like, you know what I’ll just create technology that could draw for me…my hand skills were not good enough shall we say. And my other dream was to build robots so I’m in a very good situation right now.

Q: And lastly, because we can’t help ourselves, what do you like most about living at IconInc?

Salah: (laughs) Everything! But if I had to be specific, I’d say the quality of the apartments, in comparison to other student accommodations.

We’re in awe of Salah’s talent and wish him the best of luck as he works on finishing Ai-Da’s arm. The IconInc community is full of interesting, forward-thinking students like Salah. You can find out more about living at IconInc, here.

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