Robots & Cybersecurity: Oakland Observer’s Jared Gessler Interviews Dr. Kevin J. Slonka

Dr. Kevin J. Slonka is a Professor of Information Technology at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He previously taught at multiple universities in Western Pennsylvania and agreed to join us today to give an opinion and some insight on robotics and computer science in the local area. I spoke with him over Zoom about the incorporation of robots into everyday life, beginning steps with programming and robotics, and additional fields that could be taken into consideration.

Jared Gessler: So I’m with Dr. Kevin J. Slonka. What do you teach here at the school specifically?

Dr. Kevin J. Slonka: I’m an IT professor and my specialty is cybersecurity.

Gessler: Alright, sounds good. So, I have an interest in robotics and computer science. And for this class instead of writing a journal, I was given permission to do an interview. Just a quick one. And I figured I would just ask around for similar fields, such as IT, or maybe programming and just get some opinions on some of the questions we have today. So, to start off, have you had any previous experiences with robotics, either through your line of work or previous education?

Dr. Slonka: Personally, no, I’ve done nothing with robotics. The companies that I’ve worked for all have done it, but you know, being in cybersecurity, I was never involved in any other robotics work.

Gessler: Gotcha. Has any of it ever interested you? Or have you ever thought of getting into it?

Dr. Slonka: It’s interested me, yes. One of the companies that I work with right now, they were actually involved in getting the most recent Mars rover that just landed. They were involved in that. But knowing what it takes to get into robotics and how in-depth it is, it would be a complete shift in what I do for a living. I kind of decided, you know what, I’ll stay away from that.

Gessler: I could imagine. I mean it’s fun to see, but it’s a lot to really pick apart and yeah, get all the background, I get that. But lately, cities like Pittsburgh, and actually back in Fairfax, Virginia, they were starting to incorporate robotics into everyday lives. So, it’s becoming a more and more common thing. Often you see the Boston Dynamics Spots running around.

But Pittsburgh, and as I said, Fairfax, they started incorporating the little food delivery robots. Have you seen these?

Dr. Slonka: No, I haven’t seen those.

Gessler: Okay, so they’re little rovers. They’re white, and maybe only like two feet long. And they drive around the city. And when you order food, specifically at the schools, it delivers food to the dorms.

Dr. Slonka: Nice.

Gessler: Yeah, they’re pretty interesting. What’s your opinion on bringing ideas like this to the cities or to local areas and start incorporating more? Like friendly, worker robots?

Dr. Slonka: I definitely think it’s cool. You’re always going to have the people who might think, Oh, that’s taking away jobs from humans, you know, they could be delivering food. But I mean, it’s still really cool to see these things happening.

I’m sure everybody has seen the Amazon delivery drones, the ones that fly through the air in California. I’ve never seen the ones that are like on ground in Pittsburgh or Fairfax.

You’re always going to have the people who might think, Oh, that’s taking away jobs from humans, you know, they could be delivering food. But I mean, it’s still really cool to see these things happening.

Dr. Kevin J. Slonka

Gessler: I could send you a picture of them. They’re pretty interesting. Delivery drones. I’ve actually seen a few of those. They’re very interesting. I can’t imagine making a drone that can lift that kind of weight.

Dr. Slonka: Right!

Gessler: I mean through high school I worked with a lot of drones. And that’s kind of what got me going on this path. But nothing, nothing on that scale. Nothing big. They’re pretty big. So do you think branch campuses like UPG, or maybe even Johnstown or Bradford? Do you think they could introduce more robotics or like, physical hands-on, Computer Science-building classes?

Dr. Slonka: I mean, they definitely could. So, this was one of the interesting things. You know, I mentioned earlier once I realized what it takes to get into this field, I realized it really wasn’t for me. Because a lot of people see robotics, especially if you see if you’re introduced to it in high school. And it’s more of just a fun thing, right? You get these cool drones, you get to write a little bit of Python code, and wow, everything works.

Whenever you do it in the real world, you realize it’s not that easy. And it actually encompasses understanding hardware to build your own robots. It’s more of like a computer engineering, hardware engineering-type degree, not just a straight computer science degree. So as far as the Greensburg campus, we don’t have a computer engineering degree at this campus. It would be difficult to have courses that are more intense than just the simple high school level, make-a-rover-fly type class.

Gessler: Exactly.

Dr. Slonka: But I know Johnstown does have a bunch of engineering degrees; Oakland does. It would be more possible for those two campuses to do that.

Gessler: Yeah, I definitely like to see them start opening up possibilities. And I realized that Greensburg is a bit of a smaller campus, but it still would be nice to see some a little more things pointed in that direction?

A fleet of Starship robots started delivering meals to students at The University of Pittsburgh in Fall of 2019.

So you might know better than I do. But if a student is interested in maybe one of these, do you have any what’s the best place to like, start? What do you think?

Dr. Slonka: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of places you can start, right? Buying your own drone kit, the ones that let you write some code in Python. Obviously, start the simple level just, you know, doing computer science type things, making sure you understand the programming aspect behind it.

But then once you get good with that, you’ll realize there’s not much more you can do. So, then you have to move on to find those kits that let you actually build the robots, put in servos, understand how to control things at the hardware level. And those kits exist that are out there, too. But it would be very, probably disheartening is the right word, if you bought one of those more intense kits first, only to realize, wow, I don’t know what I’m doing. So start small.

Gessler: Yeah, definitely

Dr. Slonka: Start small. And then, if you’re looking for this path, as a college degree, I would definitely recommend going somewhere that has a computer engineering degree, because that’s most likely where you’re going to find classes that deal with that stuff. And then if they also have computer science degrees, and electrical engineering degrees, those three degrees generally work together on robotics courses.

Gessler: You said you worked with organizations or companies in the past that actually might do some work with robotics. What are some local examples of this?

Dr. Slonka: So, one of the companies that I worked for is based out of Johnstown Concurrent Technologies Corporation. And the other one, they have offices everywhere. Northrop Grumman, you may have heard of them, they’re both government contractors. They both have contracts with different aspects of the military and the government to do things so many other things, you know, classified don’t know what they do.

But I know that they do robotics works. And like I said, I was never involved in the robotics works with them. But if anybody’s interested in that, and they don’t mind the government type work, you can pretty much find a lot of government contractors that do robotics.

Gessler: So that’s maybe a good direction to point some of these people who may not know where to start or get something under their belt.

Dr. Slonka: Right. And they all take interns, so I’m sure you could find an internship doing that.

Gessler: That’s very good information that’ll that can help a lot of people. Because I always felt like Northrop Grumman, and some of these larger places, will be one of the harder companies to get into.

Dr. Slonka: I’m not going to say they’re easy to get into, you know; there’s a lot of competition. I’m checking into those internships.

Gessler: Security clearances, a lot.

Dr. Slonka: Yeah. So, a lot of times with interns, you won’t have to worry about that. Because security clearances cost a lot of money. And the company isn’t going to pay for that for somebody who’s only going to be around a couple months.

Gessler: Exactly. But you can definitely learn and maybe make some good connections through some of these agencies.

Dr. Slonka: Absolutely. Almost everybody I know has gotten hired at the places that they interned in college. So, it’s definitely a good stepping stone. Look into that first.

Gessler: So, besides robotics, what topics, jobs, or maybe even hobbies do you think would interest people in similar fields? I’m sticking to more programming and tech-based jobs, just keeping in line with the general basis. Do you have a list that you think would be good?

Dr. Slonka: I mean, my personal field cybersecurity. That’s what I tell everybody. You know, there are 3.5 million unfilled cyber jobs out there. So, if you want to be guaranteed a job, learn cybersecurity. But to be a cybersecurity person, you also kind of have to be a computer science person and understand programming and how to code and how things like that work.

Gessler: Understand the background of it.

Dr. Slonka: Yeah. So, if any of that interests you, I mean, the jobs are out there. You will not have trouble finding a job.

Gessler: You know, I’ve looked at cybersecurity multiple times, I’ve got a Raspberry Pi, sitting right here that’s got some form of Linux on it. I need to get into it a little bit more.

Dr. Slonka: Learning Linux is another thing. Hey, you want to be a cyber person, learn Linux.

Gessler: I know. It’s just I need to take that time set aside and really get into it.

Dr. Slonka: Well, if you’re still at [UPitt Greensburg], in a year or two, the next time the Linux course runs, you can take it from me.

Gessler: Well, I probably will be doing that. I actually heard about it through one of my roommates not long ago. So I’ll definitely get into that.

So Pitt? Personally, they’ve been doing computer science and programming stuff for a long time now, probably since the 1970s. But just recently, in 2017, they set aside a school for computer science. Do you think they’re up to date, like in competition-wise, with other local schools, such as like Carnegie Mellon?

Dr. Slonka: So, comparing anybody to Carnegie Mellon is difficult because, you know, they’re kind of at the top of everything. But as far as being up to date, being a good program? Absolutely. Like you said, they’ve been doing it forever, even though they haven’t had a school dedicated for just that one major, they’ve been doing it forever. So, they know their stuff, the program is a great program. But now that they have their own separate school, it allows them the ability to go after other grant funds and gain a little more freedom from the other projects.

Gessler: I’m here locally at UPG. So, there are students both from the main campus and from UPG. Are there any Pittsburgh clubs or programs that you know of that could get people into this kind of field?

Dr. Slonka: As far as Pittsburgh? I’m not sure. I know, our campus has our IT club. And a lot of people in the IT club are doing I think they got a bunch of Raspberry Pi’s or drones or something, and they’re starting to play with those.

Gessler: Okay, so similar to what we’ve talked about before.

Dr. Slonka: Yeah. But if you’re looking for anything Pittsburgh-based, there’s a website, you can look at the Pittsburgh Robotics Network. And they have links to all the companies around that do robotics, and they basically allow you to make those connections. And I’m sure you can find lots of different individual groups of people who like to get together to do that stuff.

Gessler: That’s perfect. Thank you. All right. Well, that’s all I have today. I really appreciate you doing this.

Dr. Slonka: Thank you. No problem.

Gessler: You actually opened my eyes on a few things. I hope you have a great rest of your day.

Dr. Slonka: Thanks, you too. Good luck with your assignment.