People of ACM European Chapters - Štefan Kohek

October 12, 2023

How did you initially become interested in programming technologies, computer graphics, remote sensing data, and intelligent systems?

At first, I was fascinated by the automation and flexibility that programming allows. Therefore, after finishing primary school, I enrolled at the Secondary School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in Maribor. Afterward I studied at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Maribor, which gave me a lot of knowledge. I was able to use this knowledge in my work outside of study, as it is usually possible to gain enough knowledge to work in software development companies after the first year. Immediately after graduating with the 2nd Bologna Degree Program (a European higher education curricula framework) in Computer Science and Information Technologies, I started my research work as a faculty member in the field of computer graphics. At that time, I was most interested in how to achieve complex tree growth behavior in response to pruning (or competition) with a few simple rules. In the meantime, I was working on the fast synthesis of a large number of geometric 3D tree models to render them in interactive time using General-Purpose Graphics Processing Units GPGPU(s). In addition to allowing more convincing visualization of large forests, fast tree generation is also useful in other areas. For example, we developed automatic tree pruning based on optimization algorithms and fast tree synthesis in order to evaluate potential pruning actions during optimization.

Later, our department was merged into the Laboratory for Geospatial Modeling, Multimedia and Artificial Intelligence. In the new lab, I started to work more on remote sensing data while finishing my PhD. I have integrated the existing knowledge into various applications, such as more accurate simulations of tree growth over large areas. We can transfer the knowledge gained in research to the production environment for various companies, and their feedback gives us new research directions. Since our current lab works on remote sensing data, artificial intelligence, data compression, environmental simulations, and computer graphics, new research ideas can be addressed easily. I can say the same for our Institute of Computer Science and the rest of the labs within it, as we have many successful researchers covering areas in computer science.

In your area of research, what recent advance/emerging subfield will yield important advances in the years ahead?

In most areas of research, we can see significant momentum in machine learning. In computer graphics there are even plans to replace most of the steps in the graphics pipeline with neural rendering. Similarly, machine learning methods are being used increasingly to process remote sensing data, e.g. to detect tree species. However, supervised machine learning has drawbacks that prevent its use in some applications. Addressing these drawbacks will be an interesting research direction for the coming years. For example, supervised machine learning requires large training data sets, which may not be available in sufficient quantity and/or quality. Therefore, I believe that the synthesis of artificial learning datasets will become more and more important. On the other hand, synthesis of larger datasets, growing amounts of data, and training of machine learning models require increasing amounts of computing power. Efficient implementation with parallelization will become even more important, while new techniques, e.g., federated learning and quantum computing, are opening new research directions.

Will you tell us about some of the regular activities or upcoming plans for the Maribor ACM Student Chapter?

The Maribor ACM Student Chapter was founded in 2015 by PhD students from the Institute of Computer Science, Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Maribor. Iztok Fister Jr. and Niko Lukač were the founders and the driving force behind the first steps of this chapter. From the very beginning, the main goals of the chapter have been to share the knowledge of computer science between different generations of students, to popularize computer science among the younger population, and to connect with other students and ACM chapters around the world. The members of the chapter are PhD students, and also students of lower Bologna degrees, such as the first and second Bologna degrees in Computer Science and Information Technology.

Every year, the Maribor ACM Student Chapter organizes various workshops for students, where they can connect with each other and share knowledge, which is very important for their further career development. In addition, chapter members participate in events to popularize computer science among the younger population, such as Hour of Code, Code Week, and Programming for Girls. Of course, computer literacy among the elderly population cannot be neglected, so some members organized workshops to introduce modern online technologies to the elderly population. In addition, the student chapter has organized several social events, such as a pizza party, to which computer science students and companies are invited. At these events, students get to know each other and make contacts with companies, which brings many benefits. In the future, the Maribor ACM Student Chapter plans to work in a similar way, i.e., to organize more activities related to social events for students, to organize workshops for students and companies, and to popularize computer science among the population through Hour of Code and Code Week events. Of course, we also plan to establish contacts with students and other chapters in Slovenia and abroad.

What advice would you offer a younger colleague just starting out in the computing field?

From my perspective, the most important advice is to take actions that you will regret not taking. Be active and take initiative. Mistakes are inevitable in your career, but do not give up. People who work make mistakes and learn from them. Passive people are the only ones who do not make mistakes. Be open and make connections with other people and companies. Join various computerscienceassociations and attendcomputers cience conferences.  The next important piece of advice is to be open to different opinions. Nobody is perfect, and your colleagues may have good advice. Just listen to them and stop thinking about how to rephrase your own opinion to contradict them.

Finally, do not forget to live. Have a healthy work-life balance to be able to work in a sustainable way in the long run.

Štefan Kohek is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Maribor (Slovenia). His research interests include Computer Graphics, Remote Sensing Data, Simulations, Machine Learning, and Parallel Computation. Kohek is the Faculty Sponsor of the Maribor ACM Student Chapter.