”Machine learning excited me before I knew it was a thing”
Dr. Arno Solin, Assistant Professor, stores a plastic bag full of electronic gadgets in his office wardrobe, since a student of his needed equipment for building a robot. Part of them have come a long way. "My father bought this soldering iron. I was too little to be in school at the time, or just barely in elementary school," Solin says and laughs.
Already as a child, Solin was interested in technology, physics and mathematics. At home, he would build robots and spaceships. The son of academicians, he saw first hand the life of researchers -- and wanted to become one himself. "After high school, I almost chose Political History as my major. But then I figured it would be easier to have history as a hobby than statistics and mathematics."
It is Solin's job to study machine learning, which is an application of artificial intelligence: the machine learns based on experience without being further programmed by humans. Machine learning makes use of e.g. statistics. In June, the Academy of Finland granted the research project led by Solin funding allocated to the new generation of researchers. Researchers make use of statistical machine learning and the development of machine vision in their project entity.
Solin finds machine learning fascinating, as you get to combine theory with solutions to tangible problems. He concentrates on probability modeling: How do you model uncertainties? How does machine learning deduce results from new data? How can you help machines reach sensible deductions in the here and now? "I think I was interested in machine learning already before I knew it was a thing."
In the Academy-funded project, researchers concentrate on sensing, comprehending and describing the environment via machine vision methods. These functions are a challenge in the development of any autonomous or augmented reality system, especially when the surrounding conditions are uncertain.
According to Solin, the project has the potential to develop methods that could solve many a practical problem. It is this potential that fascinates him. New research results could help develop e.g. the functionalities of smartphones. Computation, especially, can be used to make them work better, to use the current data more efficiently. Smartphone cameras could become better for shooting at night, or provide better depth of field without bigger, better and more expensive sensors.
"Existing sensors, existing smartphones can improve and have more to offer simply by being able to arrive at conclusions more effectively from information detected by the device," Solin sums it up.
New knowledge can be applied to many other things. For example depth estimation can help create video games, or devices for the visually impaired to better grasp their surroundings. The research is mostly pure research in nature, but provides reliable and efficient methods for the needs of other disciplines. Through collaboration, they have been adapted in medicine and the evaluation of urban air quality.
The researcher must know how to communicate
Dr. Solin, Assistant Professor since 2018, is the co-author of a textbook in stochastic differential calculus together with Simo Särkkä, Professor of Electrical Engineering. Solin has taught several courses at Aalto University as well as AI 101 at the open university.
Solin laughs when he claims his motives for sharing knowledge are partly self-interested. "Explaining to others, I learn myself. When you have to explain things from different angles, in different ways and afresh, you get a different take familiar things."
There's no point in being an ace researcher, if you are not able to communicate your findings to others.
Solin considers teaching and conveying your own particular expertise to others as an essential part of a researcher's work. It supports research and also raises new generations to study and apply what they have learned. Already as a child, at the Waldorf School of his native Turku, he learned to present things visually and with clarity, and to hold presentations. He got used to going to some trouble to make things clear to his audience. "That is something I think should be valued more. There's no point in being an ace researcher, if you are not able to communicate your findings to others."
The Waldorf School has strongly shaped the kind of adult and researcher Solin has grown up to be. In his opinion, the pedagogy supports the pupil's personal growth. Studies advance in the pupil's terms. Group sizes are small, which enables more personal tuition. The school encourages self-expression and social interaction. "Wherever you end up in working life, some kind of social skills and a capability to work together with people are needed."
Solin hears people are amazed at how many international partners he has. He puts it down to his proclivity to work with other people. "Maybe it comes through, and then others like to work with me, too."
"In Finland, you get a solid basic education"
The high school guidance counselor never breathed a word about the then Helsinki University of Technology, but in his final year, Solin met a student from there at a housewarming party. The student suggested Solin, who was interested in physics and mathematics, send an application to study Technical Physics and Mathematics there.
This encounter stuck to Solin's mind. He did apply and was accepted, but still during his national service, he went through the options: should I stay or should I go? "It was a very pragmatic choice: If you wish to remain in Finland, you surely get a solid basic education. Which is very true."
A young man, Solin was into jogging and played competitive badminton. Nowadays, a family man, his hobbies are linked to his work. Other projects have had to go. "I like to build, experiment and code things. My wife considers them work, I see them as pleasure. It's a very thin line: if you wish to apply algorithms in the automation of the family home, is that work or play?"
What's left is spent largely with the children, but there, too, you can pursue your own interests. "After a years-long hiatus, I have rediscovered legos! My daughter plays with Duplo legos and my son with little legos. I sit in between and monitor that the pieces don't go into the mouth..."
English translation: Susanna Bell
Arno Solin, Assistant Professor
Education: D.Sc. (Tech.) Aalto University
Awards: Mathematical Contest in Modeling (2010, ‘Meritorious winner’, together with Eric Malmi and Jussi Sainio), Kaggle Schizophrenia Classification Challenge (2014), Aalto Data Science Hackathon (2015, ‘Best hack in the category Smart Cities’, together with Eric Malmi Jaakko Luttinen), ISIF Jean-Pierre Le Cadre Best Paper Award (2018, together with Manon Kok)
Funding and scholarships: Finnish Foundation for Tehnology Promotion incentive grant (2014), the Academy of Finland post-doctoral researcher funding (2017): ”Sequential inference for real-time probabilistic modelling”, Business Finland's New Business from Research Ideas funding (2018), the Academy of Finland's project funding (2019): ”Shallow models meet deep vision”
Lives in Helsinki
Hails from Turku
Greatest professional achievement: Raising awareness of the multiple uses of probabilistic models and solving real problems with them
A Swedish-speaking Finn. ”I use Finnish a lot, but speak Swedish to e.g. my children.”
Colorblind. ”My students have learned the hard way: I can't tell apart the color of lines. In certain things, I gladly surrender decision-making to others, be it visualizing things or what color furniture we should get."
Good with his hands. ”In the summer, I usually relax fixing something at our summer place. This time, I puttied and painted the old windows.”