An interview with Waleed Farahat, Mechatronics Architect, by Ann Whittaker, co-founder and VP of HR at Rethink Robotics.
AW: Waleed, I’d love to know how you evolved into a mechatronics architect. Was it a childhood inquisitiveness of how things work? Were you an engineering geek from your earliest memories? Describe your journey to current day Waleed!
WF: I really meandered into the field by stumbling across various interesting projects here and there. It’s also not an uncommon story that one is most influenced by the best teachers and mentors encountered, and my case is no different.
But what I find really fascinating about mechatronics and control is this process: you start with a “dead” piece of hardware such as a robot arm, a disk-drive, a drug delivery device, or pick your favorite example. You add some sensing and some motors around it. You then go through a process of mathematical modeling and algorithm design that is usually highly abstracted and can be very detached from reality. But then, and here’s where it gets interesting, you go back to the real world, apply those algorithms to the hardware, and voila! Now you have a living, breathing machine with character and embedded smarts, and it’s thrilling! (OK, hyperbole aside, it’s really never that dramatic, but I always get a kick out of successfully stabilizing and controlling these kinds of systems — as if one is juggling fruits or something…)
AW: From your perspective, what are some of the most interesting machines that you’ve worked on and experienced? And why do they interest you?
WF: Biological machines, no doubt. Biological systems, when viewed through the lens of engineering, are fascinating. And that is particularly true for the “mechatronics” of biological organisms: how muscles work, what principles of organismal biomechanics are in play, and how motion is controlled via the central nervous system. This is really not very different from robotics. In fact, roboticists have contributed tremendously to helping understand biological systems in terms of engineering and physical principles.
Prior to joining Rethink, my research largely focused on building and controlling biological machines. I focused on problems like: ‘How can we control muscles using artificial stimulation to make them behave like motors?’, or ‘How can we convince a bunch of unorganized cells to form vascular networks?’ – which is one of the key limitations to growing viable muscle actuators. The broader picture was, ‘How can we build controllable biological machines?’ – just like robots. At some point along the way, I even built a frog muscle actuated swimming robot – go figure!
AW: Why robots? How were you captivated? And how do you want to affect the “normalization” of robots and make them more accessible to and useful for the world at large?
WF: I really don’t think robots and robotics are any more special than any other science/engineering discipline, or any other machine that integrates some combination of hardware, software and algorithms. Robots capture many people’s imagination, but that bug didn’t quite get me just yet. And while robotics is cool, that is not a good reason to pursue a career in the field. This is a fairly common and juvenile mistake, because day in and day out, the coolness factor is the first thing to erode away.
What attracts me to Rethink, however, is the potential for profound impact on the world. This is largely because our story goes way beyond robotics, and cuts to the heart of what constitutes added value to the productivity of workers and businesses, and, by extension, to economies and people’s quality of life. We have very ambitious plans, and if we are successful in making a meaningful contribution, using robotics as a means, that would be tremendous.
AW: You grew up in a very volatile part of the world and feel a great affinity for it. I sense your optimism for the future because you are almost always smiling! Tell me what makes you hopeful.
WF: Me? Smiling? I’d rather think of myself as a realist. But I’m quite hopeful about technology and what it can deliver, and I think that applies whether one grows up in the Middle East or Scandinavia.
About the Author
Ann is a co-Founder of Rethink Robotics and VP, People & Culture. She has developed strategic and tactical expertise in the operational and human resources domains, creating an engaging, vital culture in which corporate objectives are achieved and employees flourish. Prior to co-founding Rethink Robotics in 2008, Ann held high-level administration and communications roles in educational, philanthropic and life sciences organizations. Her past affiliations include MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the David Rockefeller Jr. Family Office, Millennium Pharmaceuticals and PAREXEL International Corporation. Ann holds a BA from the American University and an MBA from Babson College. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees for the Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School and previously served on the Senior Advisory Board of Cellanyx Diagnostics.