Professor wins Fulbright to India

Professor Tom Armstrong can trace his fascination with robotics and artificial intelligence all the way back to the early 1980s to an episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” in which the sweater-wearing star visited a robotics factory. At Wheaton he continues to indulge that fascination, and he inspires it in others in the classroom and through his research. This fall he will get to do that in India as a recently selected Fulbright Scholar.

-Armstrong, assistant professor of computer science, will spend a semester as a Fulbright Scholar at the Hemchandracharya North Gujarat University in Gujarat, India. He will teach computer science robotics courses focused on data mining, artificial intelligence, computational linguistics, and language acquisition.

“Robots are no longer the technology once exclusive to episodes of popular science television series on “NOVA” or tucked away in top-secret military installations,” he wrote in his Fulbright application. “Contemporary robots vacuum our floors; they parallel park our cars; they rapidly gather our orders in massive warehouses; they explore the depths of the oceans; and they roam mountain ranges on Mars…. They are smarter and play larger roles in our daily lives. This raises questions that scholars and teachers have not previously considered.”

“My research explores machine learning algorithms for robotics and data mining. I am interested in problems where humans universally demonstrate proficiency, but robots are currently outmatched by infants. One such challenge is the acquisition of language skills. Children are facile at acquiring the structure and meaning of their native tongues. The ease with which they become language experts belies the complexity of the underlying task—learning from massive amounts of noisy data. I want to build robots that do exactly that.”

The professor, whose Australian Silky Terrier is named Mr. Bot, could have applied for a Fulbright to many other destinations, but India has been of interest since graduate school, where he had the opportunity to develop strong relationships with peers from India. He is looking forward to continuing to share his knowledge on an international level and to learn from cross-cultural experiences. In 2010, he was awarded a Marion and Jasper Whiting Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to Denmark and Turkey to study robotics.

During his Fulbright in India, Armstrong plans to develop curricula and help expand the scope of the university’s computer science department; explore best practices and environments to improve recruitment and retention of women in computer science; and learn a new language in a multicultural environment.

He already has begun studying Hindi on his own, but is eager to have an immersive language learning experience. “My goal is to acquire a language foundation in Hindi and Gujarati, the state language of Gujarat. This presents a firsthand learning opportunity with a novel writing system, Devanagari, and Indo-Iranian languages.”

The Fulbright program, which is overseen by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State, aims to foster international understanding. Since its inception more than 60 years ago, there have been more than 300,000 Fulbright scholars. For faculty members the program provides an opportunity to infuse curriculum with global perspectives.

Armstrong said he is honored to receive a Fulbright and appreciative of the responsibility that accompanies it. “Ultimately, the growth and global spread of computer science will allow both the host and myself to mutually benefit and learn from one another’s experiences.”