UCT academics scoop Google research scholarship awards

Read time 3min 20sec
Associate professor Amir Patel (left) and Dr Mohohlo Tsoeu, from the University of Cape Town.
Associate professor Amir Patel (left) and Dr Mohohlo Tsoeu, from the University of Cape Town.

Two University of Cape Town (UCT) academics have become the only Africans to receive scholarship awards for the 2021 edition of the Google Research Scholar Programme.

Associate professor Amir Patel and Dr Mohohlo Tsoeu, both from the university’s Department of Electrical Engineering and its newly formed African Robotics Unit, have become the institution’s first recipients of the search engine giant’s research programme award, after submitting their research projects that aim to contribute to the ICT sector .

The Google Research Scholar Programme supports early-career researchers in fields relevant to Google, including data management, education innovation, algorithms and theory, machine intelligence and data mining and modelling.

It provides unrestricted tools to support research at institutions and is focused on funding world-class research. To be eligible for the award, the recipient’s research must be in computer science and related fields.

Patel has been awarded in the category “Machine Perception” and Tsoeu in the category “Natural Language Processing”, according to UCT.

They will receive funding and support to implement their research in real world scenarios.

“It feels amazing to be recognised by Google, one of the largest tech companies in the world. It is also exciting and encouraging for us to be mentioned among some of the world’s top universities in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence,” says Patel.

Patel was awarded for his research project “WildPose: 3D animal biomechanics in the field, using multi-sensor data fusion”.

The biggest obstruction to a universal understanding of animal movement is measuring and modelling whole-body motion in the wild, notes Patel.

The project aims to provide deeper insight into the abilities of the world’s greatest African animals, looking into how they can “robustly traverse through the unstructured world, and will prove invaluable for legged robots if they are ever to leave the confines of the laboratory”.

The WildPose system will enable videographers to capture bio-mechanical data from animals, such as cheetahs and lions, in the wild using a single handheld device, creating a new source for data collection. “This research is important as it will allow us to measure the motion of animals in the wild at an unprecedented level,” adds Patel.

Tsoeu says he was “excited and honoured” to be one of only two researchers from an African university to receive the prestigious award this year.

“It is a positive affirmation that our research is important, has the potential to have great impact and that we have the intellectual capital to deliver.”

Tsoeu was awarded for his project titled: “Corpora collection and complete natural language processing of isiXhosa, Sesotho and other South African sign languages”. The project will investigate and develop novel and high-performance machine learning algorithms aimed at application areas such as automatic speech recognition, translation and text-to-speech/sign technology.

Tsoeu explains these applications are in the growing area of human-machine interfacing (HMI), but more importantly in the South African context, they contribute towards bridging the human language divide and improve equal access and participation to restore the dignity of currently marginalised groups such as the deaf and hard of hearing.

“The world is getting extremely connected, both through travel and the Web, and the language divide remains a bottleneck towards enjoying full global connectedness.”

Tsoeu and his team’s work will also open doors to additional research ideas and innovation in the areas of machine learning, HMI, media content distribution and education.

Funds received from the programme will make a significant contribution to the project’s “enormous costs”, which include the team’s research activities, funding students, travel costs, fieldwork and attending conferences, notes Tsoeu.

See also