Ken Goldberg Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Robotics and Art in the Information Age: Conversation with Ken Goldberg, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, UC Berkeley, August 25, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Ken, welcome to our program.

Thank you, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Nigeria in a town called Ibadan. My parents were there teaching at a place called the Mayflower School.

So you have Nigerian citizenship, I guess.

No, actually there was some question about that, but when I turned eighteen I was given a choice, and I decided to go with the U.S.A.

Looking back, how did your parents shape your thinking about the world?

Well, interesting -- my mother was just visiting. They were very idealistic, which is something I've picked up. My father was an engineer, and so when I was young he was very interested in building things, robots. He did a very early robot for a company that he owned, and I think that ended up inspiring me to go into robotics.

So, it was interfacing with the real world that got you interested in all this stuff, not -- I was going to ask you, did you read a lot of science fiction?

No. We have a theory that there's a science fiction gene, that you either have it or you don't, and for some reason I didn't get that gene.

What about education? How long were you in Nigeria, or were you educated in the United States before you went to college?

Yes, we left when I was six months old. We moved to Columbus, Ohio, and then to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania -- "Steeltown." That's where I grew up.

In high school did you have any teachers that turned you on to science and engineering, or was your father enough?

It's interesting: at second grade I had a teacher, Mrs. Ludwig, who was very interested in collecting butterflies. So, that was a start for me, because she got me interested in all kinds of species, and I catalogued them and I tracked them, and that was a start.

Where did you do your undergraduate work?

University of Pennsylvania.

Were you interested in art during this early period in your life, also? Did you do any kind of art then?

When I was in high school I took some art classes and I was interested in trying to find a way to synthesize art and other interests, but my family was going through some financial difficulties and they were pretty clear that it was important to get something that I could rely on for a steady income. So, they guided me toward engineering. In retrospect, I think it was a good decision.

What did you major in as an undergraduate?

I started as a metallurgist like my father but I decided I didn't like that very much, so I migrated over to electrical engineering. Then I spent a year abroad in Edinburgh, and one day I was there, they had a fair for new courses and I was wandering around and they had a course on artificial intelligence. So I took that class and was very interested, and when I came back, I discovered a lab at U. Penn that was specializing in robotics. That's when I really got interested in that as a research topic.

Where did you do your graduate work?

At Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

You finally wound up here at Berkeley. Did you teach at the University of Southern California for a while?

I did. My first job out of graduate school was USC in 1991. I stayed there for four years, and then I received an offer to move up here and I took it.

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