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Colfax-Mingo alum targets machine 
learning at Cambridge

Published: Thursday, May 17, 2012 11:49 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, May 17, 2012 11:58 a.m. CDT

To the every day homeowner, folding towels may seem an uncomplicated if not tedious task, but to 22-year-old Colfax-Mingo alum Colorado Reed it represents his future.

“It’s a new industry right there in a robot,” Reed said. “Folding socks, you’re looking at hundreds of equations.”

The Youtube video featuring UC Berkeley’s PR2 robot folding laundry has gone viral and has nearly 1 million views. But it’s the algorithms that make up the unit’s artificial intelligence (AI) that fascinates Reed. The University of Iowa senior graduating in applied physics explains that the science of machine learning is what makes it all possible, and it is his research on the subject that has earned Reed a high honor.

Reed has recently been named one of 14 college students nationwide to be made a Churchill Scholar. This prestigious honor gives the local alum the opportunity to study at the University of Cambridge in England for one year. Not only is it one of the oldest universities in the world, but Cambridge is also one of the top research institutions internationally. In a phone interview from Iowa City Wednesday, Reed said he will be studying under Professor Zedoubin Ghahramani, who is responsible for the mathematical muster behind research leading to intuitive smart phone apps, targeted marketing devices and the latest Apple Inc. product to enter the pop culture lexicon, the personal assistant Siri.

“He is responsible for the Bayesian Revolution,” Reed said. “Over the past 20 years he has more or less been a leader in statistical algorithms and artificial intelligence. There is a decades gap between the research and the industry, but machine learning is going to be an incredible part of peoples’ lives.”

Machine learning technology can be seen everywhere. It is seen when a shopper gets a targeted coupon at a Walmart or Target checkout, and it’s calculations are visible in suggested advertisements that pop-up after a web user’s latest Google search. Reed said it’s these algorithms, which isolate people’s behavioral patterns and habits, that make it all possible. At Cambridge, the former Colfax resident hopes to help continue that research and see how far the AI can go.

As a Churchill Scholar, Reed had to get four to five letters of recommendation from professors who are familiar with his studies and research. Each university can nominate two students for the award. This year, both of the UI’s nominees received the honor. Also joining Reed at Cambridge is UI senior Suzanne Carter.

Although he is wrapped up in machine learning, the wipe boards of algorithms and papers filled with mathematical patterns were a discovery at the end of a long search for Reed. When he first arrived at the UI he intended to be a medical doctor. But as he began a research position at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics, Reed started to recognize his interest for the science behind the scenes.

“I started to realize I loved the research environment and atmosphere,” he said. “I have an amazing amount of respect for the medical field and for doctors and nurses. There was no epiphany, just a long evolution.”

But for Reed, that evolution was not always easy. He said he “had a troublesome childhood,” going against the grain of some of his primary education instructors. He would try creating his own types of experiments, going against the traditional methods taught in Colfax schools. Although his process was unconventional, a strong support system was vital to Reed’s success. His parents, community members in Colfax and a Colfax-Mingo English and literature teacher all encouraged Reed to pursue any interests that came his way.

“Having a strong social support system is important,” he said. “Being from a small town you can have a strong social support system. From these different successes that I’ve had, there is nothing special about me. I’m not some genius. I just wanted to do those things.”

Mike Mendenhall can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 422 or via email at mmendenhall@newtondailynews.com.

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