Tuomas Lukka

Tuomas Lukka was born in Turku, Finland in December, 1974 to an academic family; his father is a retired university president, and his mother is a professor. He has one younger sister.

He skipped one year of secondary school and attended the University of Helsinki at age 17. At age 20, he completed his PhD in physical chemistry, successfully passing his thesis defence in June 1995.

Afterward, he spent three years as a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, before returning to Finland to work at Jyväskylä University. He later worked at Hybrid Graphics, a software startup. He is currently the chief scientist of ZenRobotics, a company that specializes in robotics for the recycling industry.

(The following interview was conducted via webchat on September 15, 2011.)

Tell me about when your parents first noticed something unusual about you.

Hmm… I don’t know whether they did. I was pretty interested in mathy things when young.

At what age did you learn to read?

I’m not exactly sure — before entering school, but I’m not sure of the exact year. Five or six, I think.

At school in Finland, how did your education differ from other students?

Until the seventh grade, not at all. In seventh grade, my math teacher allowed me to go forwards in the books at my own pace, and by the end of that year, I had done the 7, 8, 9th grades; in eighth grade, the 1st and 2nd of lukio (like high school in Finland); and quickly in the beginning of the 9th grade, the 3rd (final) grade of lukio.

At that point people apply to lukios (it’s the first time when entrance is not automatic and mandatory). The principal suggested that I skip a grade since I’d already done the maths for the whole of lukio, so that I’d not get bored. And that’s what I did. I skipped the 2nd grade of lukio.

Before seventh grade, were you bored at school?

Only in math classes, and there the previous teacher loaned me the autobiography of Dmitri Shostakovich. (We were a music-intensive class.)

At what age did you start university?

17, right after graduating from high school.

Did your sister also start university early?

She’s born in the beginning of the year (me in December), and I don’t remember if she started school one year before the usual time, but at least after that, she didn’t skip anything.

You entered university at 17, and you received your PhD at 20. That’s amazing! How did you finish so quickly?

Well, there’s several factors contributing there. First, I didn’t get into the social life at the university that much (partly due to going there before drinking age, 18, in Finland).

Second, when skipping a year in high school, I had learned to study things by myself from books, i.e., being able to read the books and then take the exam directly. So I didn’t go to almost any classes, just studied and took exams.

Third, the university at that point was very flexible with respect to this: there were exams for the various courses several times a year. It used to be that people studied a lot longer, something like seven years for a bachelor’s was not unusual, and this made the system very flexible. Many people would start working while still in the middle of their degree. That’s now changed (in my opinion for the worse) — the system is now more rigid, I hear.

Fourth, I had met one of the teachers on a physical chemistry lab course earlier during a summer chemistry camp, and he remembered me and suggested that I take one of the advanced courses in the spring of the first year. That summer, I got a summer job at the lab doing what later turned out to be the first of the four publications in my PhD thesis.

Fifth, my advisor was very supportive of my work, giving me enough leeway to do a bit unusual things that turned out to be good, but still being supportive also when sometimes things failed.

Sixth, I thought what I was doing, math, physics and chemistry, really interesting in general.

In which field was your PhD?

Physical chemistry. Vibration- and rotation-vibration spectroscopy of molecules. I was strictly a theoretician. There was a split: some people in the lab did almost exclusively experiments, and I was one of the few theoreticians.

You mentioned being interested in math when you were small. What drew you to chemistry?

The initial reason was a bit hubris: of physics-math-chemistry, I felt that I knew chemistry the worst. But it turned out to be a good choice, the physical chemistry department was really good.

Another reason was that I was interested in biochemistry at the time, and to study biochem, you had to start in chemistry at the time. I actually started at the same time in Otaniemi (TKK, Helsinki University of Technology) studying computer science.

Since graduating, you’ve worked at universities and a software company, and now you’re the chief scientist of ZenRobotics. How did you go from chemistry to robotics?

The route is a pretty long one. Between high school and the university (the classes stop in February and afterwards there time to study for the ylioppilaskirjoitukset, or matriculation exam), I already worked in a software company, Carelcomp, and performed pretty well at the time; I had been doing a lot of computer stuff in my spare time in high school.

After the PhD, I spent one year in Finland looking into quantum computing and various things, thinking about what to do next. Then I was at Harvard for three years (Junior Fellowship). I studied AI and coding there a lot. After that, I founded a research group in Jyväskylä University doing various things in Bayesian MCMC [Markov chain Monte Carlo] and hypertext user interfaces (collaborated with Ted Nelson for a while there).

After that, I went to work for a private-sector startup (I had done a little consulting during the dot.com bubble) that spiked my interest since they were the only small company I saw whose product wouldn’t have been essentially trivial to replicate. This startup was Hybrid Graphics and was later sold to NVIDIA. I found that I really did like the startup atmosphere and doing things that somebody is willing to pay money for (I mean customers) is really motivating, and so, after Hybrid, I decided to found my own company with Harri Valpola and Jufo Peltomaa.

The business plan was initially essentially “do something really cool in robotics,” which I think is actually a really good plan because what you then have to do is to find out what someone would actually be willing to pay money for instead of just doing something that you think is needed and have decided to do. So we called around several hundred Finnish companies and visited many and talked to a lot of people, and that’s how we ended up doing recycling robots.

What motivates you most?

Being able to solve interesting problems. Doing new things where I need to learn a lot of new things. Working with bright people.

As chief scientist of ZenRobotics, what’s the most interesting problem or challenge that you’ve had?

I think that the problem “given these sensor inputs, what do you tell the robot arm to do” (which is a pretty broad problem but really central to our company) is the most interesting one.

You have a chemistry PhD and also a strong physics background. Do you find them helpful in robotics?

Well, the chemistry part of physical chemistry I haven’t used that much, but the mathematics, numerics, physics and algorithmics that I had to learn to do physical chemistry have been very useful. It’s a toolset that makes it easier to start on new things.

I think that it’s pretty good to come to the field of robotics from the outside, because there are a lot of things that many people take for granted in the field that you can question and thereby find new opportunities. (Sorry, I can’t talk about those that much.)

Do you feel that getting a PhD early has helped you?

Well, it has certainly opened a lot of doors. From a perspective of learning, I’m not sure how much difference it made; I was just happy learning about new things and researching things, which I’m still doing today even without the academic goals. Of course it gave some structure.

How does your life today compare with what you imagined when you were younger?

Different; I would never ever have imagined founding my own company for example. I thought I’d always stay in academia (due to the example set by my parents, probably).

What three words do you think your friends and colleagues would use to describe you?

That’s a really tough one. Motivated, eccentric, opinionated, maybe.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t eat the yellow snow — no, not really… let me see…

“We’ll get through this, we always have gotten through things before” was said by the leader of a company I consulted with (i.e., it was a consulting company that I worked through) at one point. Even when things look really bad, just looking at your previous track record can give you a better perspective with less gloom.

What do you do in your spare time?

I swim and do (listen-compose-play) music; sometimes table tennis.

What kind of music do you compose?

At some point it was neo-classical; nowadays pretty miscellaneous, from jazz to electronica.

What instruments of you play?

I play keyboards and some wind instruments (recorder, traverso, and now also an Akai EWI-USB).

What personal goals do you still have?

Understanding myself better (trying to find your own cognitive biases is really interesting). Professionally, to make ZenRobotics a success.