On the surface, 14-year-old Luke Taylor seems like any other boy his age. He loves surfing and water sports, playing the guitar and spending time with friends.
But this grade 9 pupil from the German International School in Cape Town has a special talent that has landed him a spot in the semi-finals of Google’s inaugural Science Fair, beating 7 500 contestants from around the world.
Luke’s entry deals with plain-language programming for robotics, which would allow robots to respond to real-life commands like “fetch the newspaper”.
Getting a robot to understand and respond to these kinds of commands is exceptionally difficult and is considered one of the most complex challenges in robotics.
Luke has had no formal training in software development, let alone robotics coding. “He has not had a computer science lesson in his life. He once asked for a book on coding, so for his birthday I bought it for him,” says his mother, Bettina Taylor.
She says that while other boys are reading Harry Potter at bedtime, Luke is poring over his coding manual.
Luke’s foray into robotics developed from his love of Lego. “I used to build with Lego Technic, which taught me about engineering. In 2006, I started building with Lego Mindstorm where I learnt about data inputs and motors,” he says.
Lego Mindsensor kits, which adult hobbyists use for robot development, enhanced his passion for robot building and coding.
His book on coding is where he learnt the rest of what was needed to develop the project that he eventually entered into the Google Science Fair. Maths and physics classes at school have also given him an edge. “I like maths because it helps me with my algorithms and physics is good because it helps me understand electronics,” he says.
“I’m proud to put Africa on the map by making the semi-finals. It is my dream to win a scholarship one day that will allow me to study at a top university and connect with the most brilliant minds that will take robotics into the future,” says Luke.
His university of choice is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where some of the world’s top science and technology minds have studied.
Although he is certain that he will follow a career in technology, he is not sure yet which aspect he will study. However, he hopes to follow in the footsteps of one of his role models, Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, the two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle.
Luke says winning the Science Fair could give him the scholarship he is hoping for to get into a top university. “It’s a great sense of accomplishment to reach the semi-finals, and getting into the finals will be a dream come true,” he says.
The finalists for the fair will be announced on 23 May, Luke’s 15th birthday. — Candice Jones, TechCentral