Meet ML@GT: Daniel Scarafoni Makes Industrial Tasks Safer

The Machine Learning Center at Georgia Tech (ML@GT) is home to many talented students from across campus, representing all six of Georgia Tech’s colleges and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI).

These students have diverse backgrounds and a wide variety of interests both inside and outside of the classroom. Today, we’d like you to meet Daniel Scarafoni, a third-year machine learning Ph.D. student advised by ML@GT Executive Director Irfan Essa and Thomas Ploetz, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Computing (IC). As someone who enjoys working long hours, Scarafoni has been delighted to find the ML@GT Ph.D. program to be challenging both personally and professionally.  

Advisor: Thomas Ploetz and Irfan Essa

Major:  Machine Learning

Previous degrees earned and from what institutions: B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science from University of Rochester

Tell us about your research interests. Where might people be impacted by them in everyday life? 
My research focuses on action recognition and prediction, particularly for industrial human-robot collaboration scenarios. My work seeks to allow robots to understand and predict the actions of their human collaborators more effectively. The result is safer, more productive industrial tasks including handling heavy or dangerous objects like hot metal or steel rebar.

What drew you to wanting to research these areas? 
There are many fascinating implications that arise from human action recognition and prediction, particularly when considering how actions relate to goals. Understanding activities opens a window into understanding the deeper aspects of how humans see and interact with the world.

What motivated or inspired you to pursue your Ph.D.? 
I’ve been doing machine learning research for most of my career, and in that career, having a Ph.D. becomes essential to career advancement. 

Earning your Ph.D. requires a lot of work and sacrifice. What has been challenging, rewarding or unexpected about this experience? 
I’m one of those people that’s not happy unless he’s working. I can’t sit still. It’s harder for me to work 40 hours per week than 100. The best part of this has been how this program has finally given me something difficult enough to push me out of my comfort zone and help me grow as a person.

Why did you choose Georgia Tech for your Ph.D.? 
Georgia Tech is a great school all around. More specifically, the rigorous and forward-thinking nature of the Machine Learning Ph.D. attracted me. The excellent research (particularly incorporating human elements) from IC an essential perspective for the development of artificial intelligence in the 21st century.

What’s your favorite Georgia Tech memory so far? 
The social outings in the School of IC are always a good time. I especially enjoyed the time we had a “quarantine-safe” birthday party for my advisor, Thomas Ploetz. We all met at his house and had a logistically safe, socially-distanced party complete with gifts and cake. It was tons of fun!

What have you been up to during quarantine? 
In the spring, I passed my qualifying exam, which was very exciting. Since then, I’ve been focused on my paper submission for the Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR) conference, which is one of our most important conferences.

Though 2020 seems to have lasted a lifetime, we are still at the beginning of a new decade. What are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
I’m looking forward to really sharpening all my skills, launching a terrific career, and really creating the best life I can for myself and my loved ones.

What is your proudest accomplishment?
At the Nokia Bell Labs Unix at 50 celebration, my team won first place in the robotics challenge. We were able to design a robot which was able to see its surroundings, navigate a maze, and take pictures of important items, all while streaming the data live. I’m pretty impressed and proud that we were able to do all of that in only a day’s time!

What are some of your hobbies?
I read philosophy and lift weights, not usually at the same time. I also like to watch Chinese TV shows.

When you’re having a bad day, what do you do to make yourself feel better?
Lift weights and philosophize at the same time.

If you could time travel to any period of time, where would you go and why?
I’d like back in time to Ancient Rome so that I could have one-on-one discussions with Marcus Aurelius about stoicism. 

What’s your favorite place to study or work and why?
My favorite place is my office in CODA, which is on the 15th floor and offers a breathtaking view of the Atlanta area.

Why do you think embodying Georgia Tech’s motto of “progress and service” is important, especially in regards to ML and AI?
ML and AI as fields have unfortunate reputations for progress-at-all-cost technological advancement. The Georgia Tech motto reminds us that there can be no progress without service: the former is a proper component of the latter. You are not making progress if you are also making the world a darker place. If what you make is not serving the greater good, then you have, by definition, made no progress.

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