Information Systems and Analytics student Lauren Canning '21 discusses her robotics project with Professor Brian Blais, Ph.D.
Students in Bryant's "Artificial Intelligence and Robotics" course, taught by Professor Brian Blais, Ph.D. (standing), gain vital experience with programming and learn about the technological forces that shape their lives.
AI course: Where robots outplay and students outperform
Nov 13, 2018, by Staff Writer

It’s one thing to be part of a classroom discussion of the possibilities for artificial intelligence. It’s another entirely to actually build a robot that can consistently outplay you at games you’ve been practicing your whole life.

In Bryant’s "Artificial Intelligence and Robotics" course, taught by Professor of Science and Technology Brian Blais, Ph.D., theory becomes practice becomes reality. The class mixes lessons about key issues and ideas in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence with hands-on experience.

Working in small groups throughout the semester, students build robots that play board games like “Dodge’em” and “Chomp” against human opponents – and win consistently. That means being able to “see” the board, decide on strategy, adapt to their opponent’s choices, and physically move game pieces.

It’s great preparation for a rapidly evolving world. “Artificial intelligence is a growing field,” says Actuarial Mathematics major Jonathan Huntley ’21. “It’s everywhere and it’s not going away. I know the things I’m learning in this class are going to help me wherever I go.”

Thinking machines

The coursework also focuses on competing theories of artificial intelligence and decision-making as well as ethical issues related those areas. “It’s important that we have these discussions and position them in a wider context,” Professor Blais notes. “The work they do in this class helps students walk away with an appreciation of the power and the limitations of technology and with a new way of thinking and approaching problems.”

 "If you had told me that we were going to build a working robot, I don’t know what I’d think. But then I look at what we’ve done and I realize ‘here it is.’"

Python, a high-level programming language that is an invaluable tool in a variety of fields, is used in the course. “Python is one of the easiest language to learn, which is remarkable because it's also one of the most powerful languages I've ever worked with,” says Blais. “Anything you want to do in programming, from web development, to doing numerical simulations, to building robots, can be done in Python.”

“I’ve applied to several jobs already that have either specifically requested Python experience or are impressed that I’ve had experience with it already,” notes Data Science major Reed Heim ’19. “I might not be coding robots for my job but what I’m learning is definitely helping me build a foundation for my career.”

Big tasks, big rewards

Many of the students admit to initially feeling daunted when faced with the complexity and scope of their project, but they quickly realized they were able to accomplish more than they thought possible.

 “If you had told me that we were going to build a working robot, I don’t know what I’d think,” says Data Science major Trevor Kaplan ’19. “But then I look at what we’ve done and I realize ‘here it is.’”

Along with lessons in programming, mechanics, and philosophical issues, the students gain an education in perseverance. “Professor Blais always reminds us that the robot will always do exactly what we tell it to do, but not necessarily want you want it to,” laughs Linh Phan ’19, an Information Systems and Finance double major.

"Sometimes students have come up to me and asked, ‘Will this design work?’ I tell them ‘I have no idea. Build it and let’s find out.’"

When everything comes together, it’s a great moment. “There’s a real sense of pride when we actually get our program to run, and when it actually does what we want it to do,” Huntley notes.

“There’s a lot of high-fives,” Britton-Doucette adds. “It feels like a real victory.”

From the ground up

Students have great deal of freedom in constructing their robots. “I try to have them work through and build things as much as they can, and program things from the bottom up,” says Professor Blais. “Sometimes students will come up to me and ask, ‘Will this design work?’ And I'll tell them ‘I have no idea. Build it and let’s find out.’

“Allowing the students to explore gives them a better sense of what’s going on under the hood of their projects, because they've built so much of it,” he explains. “It helps provide them with a better sense of the topics we’ve discussed.”

The result oftentimes is a one-of-a-kind final project. “One of the best things about building a robot from scratch is that you get to use your imagination and make it whatever you want it to be,” says Accounting major Spencer Polsgrove ’19.

For Information Systems major Lauren Canning ’21, the work she’s doing is an affirmation. “I’ve always been interested in robots,” she says. “This course has confirmed for me that I really like coding and that the more I learn about it, the more interested I am. A class like this is a really fun way to prepare for the future.”

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