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Epameinondas Antonakos, with research interests in Computer Vision, Machine Learning, and Robotics, has led scientific innovation teams at Amazon Berlin for six years. Holding a position of responsibility, Epameinondas Antonakos redefines pioneering and international development.
By Mia Kollia
Epameinondas Antonakos's teams focus on innovative robotics technologies to optimize operations in Amazon's warehouses and various machine vision automation such as product recognition, product discovery, personalization of the shopping process, visual catalog analysis, and product search based on visual attributes.
What exactly is the subject of your work?
My specialization is artificial intelligence and computer vision, machine learning, and robotics. Computer vision is the science of enabling machines to visually perceive the world around them through cameras, similar to human vision, by understanding the content of images and videos. It is a cornerstone for building intelligent autonomous robots that can safely, efficiently, and fluently interact with their environment and the uncertainty of the real world. In addition, computer vision can generate new, unseen, realistic images and video content. Machine learning is a fundamental piece of both these domains as it enables machines to learn any task using existing data, sensory experiences, practice, and repetition. In the last two decades, we have witnessed exponential progress in these fields, which has already revolutionized how we interact with artificial intelligence in our everyday lives. The significant ongoing investments of academia and the tech industry, especially the big tech companies, in these areas will enable artificial intelligence to transform our lives significantly.
What were the most important stations on your career path?
I received my Electrical and Computer Engineering diploma from the National Technical University of Athens, where I was introduced to artificial intelligence. I then obtained my Ph.D. at Imperial College London in computer vision (2012-2017). In 2017, I joined Amazon as an applied scientist. Within my first year, I was offered the opportunity to convert to an applied science manager role. Since 2018, I have led science innovation teams at Amazon, consisting of scientists and engineers specializing in computer vision, machine learning, and robotics. These domains are major unlocks for Amazon to optimize its operations and create exciting new products that matter to customers. For example, building robotic arms that can autonomously manipulate (pick, store, pack) in a defect-free manner the hundreds of millions of diverse products processed in Amazon logistics can be a game changer in fulfillment. Additionally, computer vision can be leveraged across several Amazon business units to fully automate product identification, product discovery, personalization, social marketing, visual search, and catalog analysis. My teams have been working at all stages of the R&D pipeline, from ideation to production.
What does someone need to make his dream come true?
I don’t think there is a single recipe for success. Something that works for one person does not necessarily work out for another. Making a dream come true is a combination of intentional action, skills, and, to some extent, luck. Indeed, there are parameters that one can control to maximize their chances, such as determination, a growth mindset, looking around corners for the right opportunities, networking, remaining confident, and being brave at taking risks. However, numerous parameters cannot be controlled and are primarily attributed to luck. Therefore, it’s important to show flexibility and resilience when things don’t work out as expected and to be accessible to ourselves. After all, it takes some time to understand our real dreams instead of what we think they should be.
What were the most significant difficulties you faced along the way?
Most challenges I have faced and continue to face have a common underlying theme: adapting to a new environment or situation that is unknown or outside my comfort zone. These are situations that require taking giant leaps to overcome challenges. For example, when I first moved to London for my Ph.D., it was hard to blend in and socialize. I had underestimated the value of being surrounded by family and lifelong friends. In addition, the Ph.D. itself was a big commitment in a very competitive field and in an academic environment with excellent researchers that initially made me feel that I was constantly trying to keep up. So, it was terrifying when Amazon offered me the opportunity to become a science manager just a year after joining the company. The expectations were high, and I had to quickly adapt to an entirely new role and lead a team with robotics expertise outside my immediate comfort zone. Finally, one of the biggest challenges was when my partner and I became parents during Covid without family support in Berlin. Trying to combine parenthood with the responsibilities of a demanding job and finding a balance between the two is very challenging.
Who do we need to become to overcome life's difficulties?
Overcoming difficult situations requires persistence, embracing ambiguity, finding the motivation to rise to the occasion, and hard work. More importantly, it helps me think of challenging situations as two-way doors instead of one-way ones. When challenged, it’s very human to have negative thoughts and stress that it will be an absolute disaster in case of failure. Instead, it helps me to explicitly play the scenario in my head of what would happen if everything went wrong, embrace the feeling of a potential failure, zoom out and r, realize that there are alternative options too. After all, the only constant in life is change.
How does one become an executive in a large organization such as Amazon, and what will he face?
Being hired by such an organization requires demonstrating the proper technical and problem-solving knowledge, soft skills, and good timing and luck. In my case, the timing was critical. The company approached me during a conference where I had a very motivating discussion with my future manager, which convinced me to proceed with an interview. At the time, I was a last-year Ph.D. student aspiring for an academic career and was not thinking about the industry. So, everything worked out at the right time.
Amazon operates at a scale impossible to imagine before witnessing it first-hand. It invests in so many business areas that it feels like an ecosystem of many smaller startups with secure funding rather than a unified organization. After about six years at the company, I’m still often amazed by its scale and all the business activity I don’t know about. In addition, the hiring process at Amazon dictates that each new hire raises the bar compared to existing employees at the same job family and level already hired. As a result, working at Amazon can feel very demanding. Nevertheless, skilled, ambitious, competent people surround you, and you must continue growing to keep up with the constantly rising bar. Moreover, it can feel chaotic due to the multiple stakeholders involved in decision-making and project execution. Therefore, understanding how to delicately handle challenging situations to build consensus and achieve the best outcome for my team was one of the essential skills I had to learn at Amazon.
What are the most significant advantages of working for a company the size of Amazon?
Like all big tech companies, Amazon offers a top-notch working environment and a set of benefits to motivate employees and help them succeed. The work itself is very motivating as teams are encouraged to innovate on behalf of their customers. More importantly, it has numerous internal training programs to help employees achieve their career aspirations by developing new skill sets or horizontally transitioning to new roles, like in my case.