Evan Marczynski/The AS Review

Artificial intelligence will come to life this week during the computer science department’s annual student robot competition, which will be held from 2 to 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 3 in the first floor lobby of the Communications Facility.

Jianna Zhang, organizer of the competition and robotics professor, said she started the annual contest in 2003 to give her students an opportunity to use the robot-building skills they have learned in class to design and create something entirely on their own.

“I am so impressed and so proud of them,” Zhang said. “I want to give them a chance to show their work.”

Additionally, the competition serves as a way for the computer science and robotics programs to attract the attention of students and also partner with other departments. Constructing a robot combines the skills of both computer programming and engineering, Zhang said.

While the competition is open to all students, the majority of the entries come from Zhang’s students in either her CS 172 class, which is a university GUR and open to anyone, or her CS 572 class, which is a graduate-level computer science class.

Zhang said there will be around 15 robots competing this year, although the final number will depend on how many entries come from students not enrolled in her classes.

Since the competition started seven years ago, entrants have created an array of artificial life forms suited to a number of different tasks.

In 2007, student Kyle Thomas took the top prize with a robot he called Sketchabot, which was designed to draw and paint. Sketchabot used light sensors to dip its brush into paint and a motor and touch sensors to put color onto a page.
In 2005, the first place robot was created by Natasa Lezetic-Greear. Her robot, which she named Good Boy, was able to follow a line drawn on the ground and recognize a red object and open its mouth and bark when it found one.

Zhang said she decided to organize the competition because she wants to promote artificial intelligence and robotics research. She added that she thinks robots will play a significant role in the future of technology.

“There’s a lot of applications for robotics,” Zhang said.

The rules of the competition state that each entry much be built using safe materials such as Legos, electronic sensors, plastic lunch boxes, thin metal sheets or coconut shells. Robots must be able to operate on their own, although the designer is allowed to start and stop the robot using a button or change the robot’s programming to perform a separate task.

Additionally, designers can physically reset their robot up to three times if it does not successfully complete its task, although they will be marked down for each reset.

A panel of judges will grade each robot and award prizes to the top three entries, Zhang said. Robots will be graded based on established criteria, the main component of which is the hardware and software engineering of the robot. In addition, almost a third of the final point total is awarded for the demonstration of the function the robot is designed to carry out.

There are also bonus points available for robots that are designed with learning behaviors, which Zhang said are particularly challenging to effectively create and implement.

Zhang said an example of a successful robotic learning behavior would be a robot who would be able to first encounter an obstacle, like a wall, and upon a second encounter remember that the wall was there and know to avoid it.

The main point of the competition is to give students interested in robotics a chance to gain hands-on experience creating artificial intelligence in a forum that encourages creativity and ingenuity, Zhang said.

She added that with the computer and engineering technology that is available today, robots can be created to do just about anything. In past competitions, her students have designed robots that are capable of climbing stairs, walking up inclined slopes, and drawing patterns and words entirely on their own.

Zhang said the contest allows robot designers a chance to learn and think in different ways by developing ideas for artificial intelligence entirely from scratch, rather than learning robotics by following specific guidelines and schematics in a classroom setting.

Zhang added that she wants students to have a chance to think about the endless ways in which technology and engineering can be applied to robotics in a competitive environment with no limitations.

“I want them to learn to think with open minds,” she said.

For more information on the contest and to see photos of past winners, visit the competition’s website at merlin.cs.wwu.edu/robots.