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Gradzette

the university of manitoba’s graduate student magazine

October 2013

U of M Autonomous Agents Lab brings home robotics prize from Malaysia page 3


Gradzette THE UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA’S GRADUATE STUDENT MAGAZINE Gradzette c/o The Manitoban Newspaper Publications Corporation 105 University Centre University of Manitoba Winnipeg, MB, R3T 2N2 General inquiries and advertising Phone: (204) 474.6535 Fax: (204) 474.7651 Email: editor@gradzette.com Editor: Ryan Harby Copy Editor: Bryce Hoye Designer: Marc Lagace Contributors: Leila Mostaço-Guidolin, Jenna Diubaldo Cover: Beibei Lu The Gradzette is the official student magazine of the University of Manitoba’s graduate student community and is published on the first Monday of each month by the Manitoban Newspaper Publications Corporation. The Gradzette is a democratic student organization, open to participation from all students. It exists to serve its readers as students and citizens.

Freelance! The Gradzette is pleased to offer U of M graduate students the opportunity to get involved with their student paper. If you have a passion for writing, journalism, photography, or illustration the Gradzette is looking for individuals to get involved with the production process of the U of M’s grad student paper. The Gradzette currently offers 10 cents per word for freelance article assignments (articles can range from 400-900 words) and upwards of seven dollars per photo/graphic used within the paper. Freelancers will be added to a contact pool and emailed with potential article, photo, or graphic assignments when they become available. On average, freelance contributors will be expected to complete assignments within a seven day period, although certain assignments may be allotted a longer schedule. For applications to the freelance writer pool, please send a resume and at least two (2) writing samples to editor@gradzette. com.

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The magazine’s primary mandate is to report fairly and objectively on issues and events of importance and interest to the graduate students of the University of Manitoba, to provide an open forum for the free expression and exchange of opinions and ideas, and to stimulate meaningful debate on issues that affect or would otherwise be of interest to the student body and/or society in general. The Gradzette serves as a training ground for students interested in any aspect of journalism. Students and other interested parties are invited to contribute. Please contact the editor listed above for submission guidelines. The Gradzette reserves the right to edit all submissions and will not publish any material deemed by its editorial board to be discriminatory, racist, sexist, homophobic or libelous. Opinions expressed in letters and articles are solely those of the authors. The Gradzette is a member of the Canadian University Press, a national student press cooperative with members from St. John’s to Victoria. All contents are ©2013 and may not be reprinted without the express written permission of the Manitoban Newspaper Publications Corporation. Yearly subscriptions to the Gradzette are available, please contact publisher@gradzette.com for more information.


SnoBots excel at HuroCup

U of M Autonomous Agents Lab brings home robotics prize by Jenna Diubaldo

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he department of computer science and the Autonomous Agents Laboratory (AAL) at the U of M can add another feather to their cap, as the robotics team known as the SnoBots won first prize in the kid-size division at the 2013 FIRA HuroCup in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this summer. One of the oldest robotics contests in the world, the Federation of International Robot-soccer Association (FIRA) HuroCup is a competition in which humanoid robots must compete in several different events that include sprinting, weight lifting, basketball free-throws, soccer penalty kicks, a climbing wall, and so on. Much like gymnastics teams in the Olympics, teams receive points for each category and a winner is declared based on the highest overall score at the end of the competition. The University of Manitoba SnoBots finished the competition first place in wall climbing, first in weight lifting, second in “united soccer” (a team-based robot soccer con-

test), fourth in sprinting, and fifth in soccer penalty kicks, all in the kid-size division. Their cumulative score secured the SnoBots, named Jimmy and Jeff, first place in the all-around event, the HuroCup’s coveted King’s class. The software for the SnoBots has been under development for over a decade through the work of the head of the computer science department, Dr. John Anderson, as well as Dr. Jacky Baltes, and a rotating line-up of students that have come and gone from the faculty over the years. Chris Iverach-Brereton is one of those students, a graduate in the department of computer science currently pursuing a master’s degree. Iverach-Brereton explains the process of developing the Snobots and how they came to exist. “For the last several years the University of Manitoba’s Autonomous Agents Laboratory has been sending teams to these sorts of international robotics competitions,” said Iverach-Brereton. “The 2011 competitions were our first year

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using our current humanoid robots ­– commercially-manufactured DARwIn-OP research robots made by the Robotis Corporation from South Korea. Because we’re part of the computer science department our expertise lies mainly in writing the software that controls the robots and less in the mechanical and electronics engineering that goes into their design.” The software developed by the Autonomous Agents Lab allows the robots to act without any human directive, meaning rather than a human deciding how the robot will respond and telling it what to do the robots must be designed to rec-

add real-world pressure to research,” said Anderson, adding “Something has to work on demand, not after hours of tweaking things to make it fit the conditions well, and all the skills have to be working together to meet the challenges.” Anderson also noted that by creating robots that are able to accomplish a multitude of tasks rather than just one function, they are able to complete duties that can be difficult, time consuming, or repetitive for humans. “The FIRA competition we just won embodies a range of challenges for the humanoid form,” says Anderson. “To be able to do well, you have to be good at a mix of skills involv-

“The competitions [ . . . ] are designed to try to remove the temptation to be satisfied with lab conditions, and to add real-world pressure to research.” — Dr. John Anderson, head of the computer science department

ognize challenges and respond in an appropriate manner. “The robots are all autonomous [which] means there is no direct human control,” explains Iverach-Brereton. “The robots’ software must process input from its sensors and decide for itself what it should do. If the robot is navigating an obstacle course it must be able to identify the obstacles based on their colour and shape. Once it sees an obstacle it must decide if it can continue walking straight, or if it must turn [ . . . ] to avoid it. Likewise for soccer, the robot must find the ball and goal posts, and walk to the ball in such a way that it’s lined up and can kick the ball in the appropriate direction.” One may wonder what practical use these robots have, but Anderson maintains that competitions such as these aid researchers to better develop artificial intelligence that is capable of replicating human skills by forcing them to be able to function outside of the walls of a laboratory. “In the past artificial intelligence has been guilty of specializing too much,” Anderson explains. “In robotics we’d work on a basic walking gait, but make assumptions that would allow it to work well in a lab but be difficult to transfer in the real world.” “The competitions [ . . . ] are designed to try to remove the temptation to be satisfied with lab conditions, and to

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ing upper and lower body work together, as well as perception, understanding the world around you, interacting with others, and so on. [ . . . ] The end goal is to have intelligent systems embodied in robots that can do things for us in the world we live in, this can be anything from household chores to office assistants to entertainment in terms of everyday life.” While the prospect of robots doing human work can cause fear of loss of employment, Iverach-Brereton maintains that robots should not replace humans, but rather enhance their work and their lives in ways that were once not possible. “My father worked for years designing and building environmental control systems to allow sick or paralyzed people to control appliances in their homes without relying as heavily on home-care workers,” recounts Iverach-Brereton. “For someone confined to a wheelchair or a bed and unable to move their arms, giving them the ability to change the channel on their TV or turn a lamp on and off by sipping and puffing on a tube gave them an enormous amount of independence. I feel like I’ve inherited a little bit of that altruistic attitude; I want my work to help people.” A playlist of videos from the FIRA 2013 HuroCup can be found here.


Identity and distaster management in public policy

Researcher Profile: Johanu Botha by Leila Mostaço-Guidolin

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ohanu Botha, a graduate student in the interdisciplinary master’s program in public administration, focuses on two different research areas: disaster management & emergency preparedness, and the way in which the concept of identity can or cannot be integrated into the public policy process.

of a focus. The ‘economic costs’ are no longer simply a measure of the land and capital damaged, but also include the substantial impact ‘social costs,’ such as prolonged evacuation, can have on the health of individuals and the health of the economy.”

Each area is broad enough to render several theses; however, Botha has been happily working in both worlds. He has decided on a course-based master’s, which allows him to keep working in both areas, exploring all possibilities that each has to offer.

Despite this progress, Botha notes that there is much room for research in disaster management.

“As far as my research interests go, I am currently in love with both and for now I am happy working on both. It doesn’t bother me that they are so far apart in subject matter; in fact, I like it that way.” Botha’s future plans contain the same openness to variety. “I am applying to PhD programs this fall. The idea of working at a university is a wonderful one, but I am open to exploring other options as well. The work I currently do for the Government [of Manitoba] is very fulfilling, and I am intrigued with the possibilities involved in public service.” Botha works at the Office of Disaster Management (ODM), which is a part of Manitoba Health. Mitigation strategies are a part of Botha’s routine at the ODM and in his academic work. He notes that overall both the country and the province are—slowly, but surely—improving their mechanisms of response to unexpected situations. “We are more aware of the diverse impacts potential threats can have than we were, say, 10 years ago. The impact severe weather events, for example, can have not just on infrastructure, but on the health of citizens is becoming more

“There is very interesting work to be done on the difference between costs of preparation versus the costs of the effects of a disaster. Is disaster management a worthwhile investment? Should it even be thought of as an investment? Does it truly counterbalance the harsh effects disasters can have on economies? If so, how is a disaster management team or office best comprised, and in which government department should it reside? Should it reside within government? Would it work best as a non-state, not-for-profit? All these questions are interesting.” Before dividing his attention to disaster management, Botha was fully immersed in a different topic of research:

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identity. This, as Botha explains, is work rooted in political philosophy in that it requires analysis and comparison of various theories relating to identity with the goal to construct ways in which these ideas can be applied or integrated into the public policy process. “The entire idea of identity is complicated. It’s a messy topic, and therefore one that many theorists and public policy scholars tend to avoid. But identity is key; it is the narra-

Botha specialized in several areas during his undergraduate degree at McGill University in Montreal. He studied English (with a focus on theatre), social psychology and political science. “I realized that what fascinated me in each area of study was its unique capacity to contribute to the solution of a specific public problem. “The beauty of doing a course-based master’s in public

“Identity is key; it is the narrative in which we situate the very meaning of our lives, and the policy questions identity [gives rise to] are fascinating.” tive in which we situate the very meaning of our lives, and the policy questions identity [gives rise to] are fascinating,” said Botha. “For example, how can public policy begin to acknowledge marginalized collective identities without constraining them at the same time? If remedying systematic prejudice includes recognizing these identities, then that requires some definition of them, and definition necessarily means putting parameters around something.”

administration is that you don’t have to use just one of these areas of study and then flush it out in one piece of work. There are a variety of areas that I can look at, and I can look at them through a variety of lenses,” said Botha. “Once you define a problem, you generally need a pretty nuanced and sophisticated solution to tackle it and this requires more than one way of looking at the world.”

Get your research featured in the

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Are you a graduate student eager to promote your research and provide exposure for your work in the master’s or doctoral program? The Gradzette is looking for individuals interested in participating in our ongoing “Researcher Profile” column, which seeks to showcase important and exciting U of M research for a larger audience. Subjects of a “Researcher Profile” will be interviewed by a Gradzette staff member regarding their ongoing research project. Once the column has been put together, the information will be published online both on the Gradzette website and within the PDF version of the monthly Gradzette magazine. Both versions are free to share with coworkers, acquaintances, professors, etc. If you would like to be featured in an upcoming “Researcher Profile,” please contact editor@ gradzette.com with details regarding your field of study, a short blurb about your current research, and any pertinent contact information for interview purposes.

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Study projects tuition to increase faster than inflation over next four years by Jane Lytvynenko, CUP Ottawa Bureau chief OTTAWA (CUP) — A new study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, entitled Degrees of Uncertainty: Navigating the changing terrain of university finance, projects a 13 per cent increase in tuition over the next four years. Coming on the heels of Statistics Canada releasing the 2013-14 tuition prices, the report shows tuition fees across the country rising faster than the rate of inflation. “Canadian full-time students in undergraduate programs paid 3.3 per cent more on average in tuition fees for the 2013/2014 academic year this fall than they did a year earlier,” reads the StatsCan report. “This follows a 4.2 per cent increase in 2012/2013.” Nigel Wordich, a university student and contributor to the CCPA report, said the provinces are investing less into post secondary education, passing the cost onto students. According to Wordich, the fiscal strain of recent years is one of the reasons for decreased funding.

Direct funding is one of the primary recommendations of the CCPA report. They cite the example of Germany, where participation and student retention are high as a result of publicly funded education. Wordich said while Canadian tuition rates are lower than in the United States, we need to look elsewhere for post-secondary education models. “Oftentimes we compare Canada to the U.S., but if we look at European, North American and Asian countries in general, Canadian provinces have some of the highest tuition rates,” he said. “Public education and tertiary education has a collective benefit for all of society and for that reason it should be collectively funded.” With the current average $20,000 debt upon graduation and youth at double the unemployment rate of the rest of the country, said Harris, students who finish school can’t get on with their life and contribute to the economy. With the $15-billion borrowing ceiling removed by the Conservative government, the graduation debt is only increasing.

“Oftentimes we compare Canada to the U.S., but if we look at European, North American and Asian countries in general, Canadian provinces have some of the highest tuition rates”

— Nigel Wordich

The CCPA says most relief for university costs come in form of grants and rebates rather than direct funding — something Wordich says is problematic. This form of aid doesn’t support all students and bars those coming from low-income backgrounds from entering college or university. Dan Harris, the NDP post-secondary education critic, says this increase is a continuation of a long-term, 20-year trend. Harris says the steady hike in costs puts the “affordability of education out of reach.” “Direct funding to education has a multiplying effect,” he added. “It’s going to lead to greater economic success and better revenues for the government. The money is going to come back.”

“It’s a really frightening prospect for young people today,” said Harris. “When we’re told time and time again that this is the first generation that’s going to get less than what their parents had, that’s when we have to strive to do more and be better, we have to demand more.” Wordich, who is a third-year student at the University of Ottawa, said “the discussion on tuition rates is hitting critical masses.” He points to Quebec, where the student protests last spring made national news in demanding lower tuition fees. Harris said students need to get active and engaged, adding they should make their voices heard in the 2015 election. “We need to make sure students that come from all backgrounds have an equal opportunity,” added Wordich.

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October, 2013 Gradzette