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Transitions Part Seven: Soccer Coach, Ph.D.

T his is the seventh installment of our Transitions series, in which Stijn Oomes describes how various events in his life are shaping his developing career. After deciding to temporarily halt his efforts to build up his own business, Stijn was offered a job in a multinational electronics company. Today, more than a year in his new role, he tells us how his position within the company is evolving.

Being the coach of the Dutch national soccer team, I have a big responsibility. I now have two and a half months left to prepare my players for the 2004 World Championship in Lisbon, Portugal. We had a good start this season, reaching the quarter finals at a recent international tournament in Paderborn, Germany. Even though we didn?t go any further, I am very proud of my team and I feel we are getting in good shape. But maybe you are wondering what a Ph.D. has got to do with my role as a soccer coach. In my case, it has everything to do with it.

Beat the humans by 2050

Maybe I should have told you that me and my team are playing robot soccer. I work for a multinational electronics company, in a lab where we investigate how intelligent systems may work together. To strengthen our research portfolio we decided to make a robot soccer team with Sony?s AIBO robots. Of course I coach the students, not the soccer-playing robots, and together we form the Dutch AIBO team. The competitions we?re taking part in are organised by RoboCup, a worldwide community that aims to develop a team of soccer robots that can beat the human champion team by the year 2050.

So now you can understand why my Ph.D. in cognitive science and my research experience in artificial intelligence are rather useful! There are fundamental problems to be solved before we can say that our team of robots is playing soccer in an intelligent fashion. But each of these problems helps us think about how to get the robots to perceive what is happening on the field, control their movements to effectively kick the ball, coordinate their actions into a common strategy, assess the strategy of the opponent, and collaboratively switch to a different tactic, and more!

So even if robot soccer is a lot of fun, it is also a platform for serious research. And what makes it even more fun and better research is that with RoboCup we have the added incentive of competition. Everyone has to publish their methods after the annual championship, so that we can all learn from our own and each other?s mistakes.

The robot soccer project is not the only one I am involved in, and while the largest project team I had been part of before joining my new lab in January last year consisted of four people, I now work routinely with teams of 10 to 50 people. What is also new for me is that I am being assigned the leading position in more and more of these projects. I used to worry about getting my experiments done; now I worry about the research team and how we can reach our common objective.

An important consequence of feeling responsible for the team performance is that my sense of ownership has diminished. In my academic years I was weary to discuss my ideas because I was afraid that someone else would beat me to publish them. Now I feel unreserved, which--together with ?cross-fertilisation? of the different activities in multiple projects--has increased the flow of innovative ideas, both in number and quality.

Sinking into management, and liking it

I am seeing myself evolving from a researcher testing ideas at the bench to a research manager who has ample time to do the grind work. I am thus spending increasing amounts of time writing research plans, building multinational project teams, organising meetings, budgeting, scheduling, and above all doing a lot of talking. I clearly remember the conversations I had as a Ph.D. student with other graduate students and postdocs about senior scientists who were "merely managing." We were shaking our heads in disbelief, silently promising ourselves never to sink that low.

But since I?ve been lured into this evil management empire, I have to admit I really enjoy it. It is new and challenging, and--more important to me--I have become more influential. I am now playing with the big boys and I have a say in how things are done. Project management involves a lot of "politics," not an easy game to play, but I am happy to get the opportunity to join in, make mistakes occasionally, and learn as I go along.

Still, one aspect of research that remains in my current job is the generation of novel ideas. And of all the things I do, this is the one I enjoy the most. Here is an example of what I am talking about: Last week, while having a beer in one of the German Stübes, we discussed how we could improve the movements and kicks of our robots. To be competitive, I knew we should come up with new moves, totally different from the ones of our competitors.

Elaborating on this idea I thought of dance students, who could act as our AIBOs and intuitively invent new kicks. If we record their ?dances? on video, we could take the best moves and programme them into our robots. Of course this requires some organising, but even if it leads to only one new, exclusive move, our chances to win the world championship will increase significantly. The excitement is two-fold for me: Part of it comes from merely conceiving the idea, and the rest of the satisfaction will come once we?ve successfully realised it.

I am looking forward to the world robot soccer championship. It will be the ultimate test of our research ideas, and for me personally, of my coaching abilities. Even though they will probably never grant me a Ph.D. in coaching, I will be satisfied if I can make a difference.

Watch for further installments of "Transitions" as Stijn's story unfolds. ...