The award honours exceptional PhD students who aim at making their mark in promising and disruptive technologies.

A Wits PhD computer science student has been recognised for his work by becoming the only African with an IBM PhD fellowship award.

The Wits faculty of science announced on May 1 that Geraud Nangue Tasse was recently awarded the 2021 IBM PhD Fellowship Award for his work on composition in reinforcement learning (RL). 

Tasse, who is part of the robotics, autonomous intelligence and learning lab (RAIL Lab) at Wits, is one of 16 students worldwide to receive the award in 2021, as well as being this year’s only African recipient. 

“I am outstandingly happy, very privileged and excited about the opportunities this award will lead to in the near future, opening more doors for me,” he says.  

RL is an area of machine learning concerned with how intelligent agents take actions in an environment. It is one of three basic machine learning paradigms, along with supervised and unsupervised learning. It is utilised in a variety of sectors such as internet advertising, e-commerce and finance, robotics and manufacturing. RL focuses on a training algorithm.  

The outcome of the process is building a smart machine that constitutes a software system capable of accomplishing tasks that commonly require human intelligence. Such machines can be robots or computer systems.  

Tasse says, “Currently methods in RL generally lack in safety, interpretability and require millions of samples from an environment for every task, limiting their real-world applicability.”  

He plans to use the IBM programme to further carry out research to develop better algorithms and theory for designing improved RL agents. He says his research is a step towards having general purpose agents that can help individuals in their day-to-day lives, for instance domestic robots in homes and service robots in public spaces.  

The IBM PhD Fellowship Award programme is an online platform managed by the IBM Global University. It honours exceptional PhD students who aim at making their mark in promising and disruptive technologies, and focuses on cloud/open source, data science, computing and artificial intelligence. To qualify for the award, students are nominated by a doctoral faculty member.  

His supervisors, both associate professors at the school of computer science and applied mathematics, are full of praise for Tasse.

“Geraud is a student who is very passionate about his work and really believes in it,’’ says Benjamin Roseman, who holds a PhD in informatics. ‘‘If he could work in any industry, this is what he would be working in, as he is very driven.” 

Co-supervisor, Steven James, describes Tasse as “this perfect student whose goals aligned with ours… I have not seen any other student as creative and driven as Geraud.” 

Tasse completed his composition work in boolean task algebra. Boolean algebra has been fundamental in the development of digital electronics and is present in all modern programming languages. This body of work is a strong point in Tasse’s CV as it demonstrates research skills.  

Awarded students are mentored by IBM researchers and technologists and provided with funding to assist their research.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Geraud Nangue Tasse, a Wits PhD student in computer science. Photo: Supplied