This month’s Staff Spotlight features Professor Robert Fisher who arrived at Edinburgh University in 1980 to study for his PhD and has been here ever since.
Robert, or Bob to friends and colleagues, started his academic journey in the 1970s when he studied Mathematics at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). After graduating in 1974, he worked as a software engineer for a number of years before realising he missed the intellectual stimulus of university life.
After an MSc in Computer Science at Stanford he stayed within academia and headed to Edinburgh to study for a PhD in artificial intelligence.
Influence and inspiration
Professor Fisher has been lucky to work with a number of inspirational individuals during his academic career including his PhD supervisor Professor Jim Howe, a founding member of the University's Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception and head of the Department of Artificial Intelligence from 1977 to 1996.
He also working with the late Professor Fred Thompson at Caltech; one of the great thinkers behind computer science who took Bob on as a summer intern.
Many people have inspired me, and I am surrounded by so many talented people that it seems a bit scary at times.
As Professor of Computer Vision at the University of Edinburgh, Bob investigates a variety of topics in computer vision, but has concentrated on topics in 3D data capture and analysis, including recent work on 3D video data analysis.
As part of a European Commission funded project investigating methods to improve robot sonar, Bob and his team travelled to the jungles of Panama to record high-speed stereo video of bats during their prey captures.
The Edinburgh team contributed 3D shape recovery and analysis of the heads of bats in flight. This, when combined with high resolution 3D data from static scans, will allow for the creation of deforming models of the bat in flight.
Like most staff, he spends equal amounts of time on research, teaching and, administration aside, he is keen to stress how important this balance is to the life of an academic.
I find teaching particularly rewarding: even if you do some great piece of research, someone else will have superseded that work within a few years. However, if you teach a student well, no matter whether they are a strong student or not, then you have made an impact that can last 40-50 years.
Helping to diagnose skin cancer
Bob’s work is also making an impact outside of the academic world, following an inspirational conversation with a colleague; the idea of a web-based tool that helps medical staff diagnose skin cancer was born.
This revolutionary technology, which will be on the market shortly, will allow non-specialist medical people (e.g. GPs, clinic nurses) to pre-assess lesions or spots. It also has the potential be used by the public as a tool to encourage visits to their doctor based on concerns about abnormal skin growths.
Computer vision and image processing are topics that are helpful to many other fields of research, and I have enjoyed working with researchers from around the University, sometimes from unexpected Schools, such as Divinity, Agriculture, Art, and Medicine.
Robot hedge trimmer
Professor Fisher is currently developing an online course in computer vision and robotics as well as leading a new project exploring the sensing and robotics needed for a robot hedge trimmer. Though it might appear a rather specialised application, the prospect of a robotic hedge trimmer being on the market in 10 years based on Bob's research is a source of enthusiasm and pride.
Hundreds of thousands of robot lawnmowers are sold each year to councils and professional gardeners. A hedge trimmer working happily and largely independently in the background alongside the gardener could free up the gardener to focus on even more interesting aspects of the gardens.