It’s Time to Add AI to Your Robotics Competition

Most industrial robots are preprogrammed or remotely controlled. That’s starting to change with the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI). Some robots operate autonomously and learn to improve task efficiency.

The same is true about elementary and secondary school robotics competitions—few involve real AI. Usually, the robots are teleoperated to perform a task like picking up objects and putting them in a bucket. The rules change each year but the scoring is the same—the most stuff in the bucket wins.

The World Artificial Intelligence Competition for Youth (WAICY) is different. The Cozmo robots, by Anki must be primarily autonomous, although human interaction is encouraged. Competitors must demonstrate the use of real AI capabilities including computer vision, face detection, speech recognition and synthesis, and object manipulation.

Challenging, right? But these technical features account for only 50% of the total score.

Dave Touretzky explains, “The remaining 50% comes from artistic considerations such as telling a coherent story or producing good game mechanics, designing a nice “set” for the robot to interact with, appropriate use of sound, and overall presentation.”

Touretzky calls it “STEAM-powered AI” because it combines technology with artistry. (STEAM is an education acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics.)  He adds, “Not everyone on a WAICY team has to be an avid programmer; kids with an artistic bent also make important contributions.”

Students are given the scoring rubric in advance, and they study it carefully. Each category is scored from “needs improvement” to “outstanding.”

Last month a WAICY competition among 10 teams was hosted by the Montour School District, home of the first AI course offered by a public district. Innovation Director Justin Aglio said, “It’s a great competition and resource for classroom teachers.”

Students are interviewed after the competition (example below) about the potential impact of their project, what they learned, how they collaborated, and what they’ll do differently next time.

“Judging a WAICY competition is hard!” said Touretzky, a former judge. “It’s somewhat subjective—more like judging the Oscars than a car race. But this kind of rubric really unleashes student creativity.”

Touretzky is a research professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. He’s also the founder of AI4K12, an initiative jointly sponsored by AAAI and CSTA with the goal of identifying what students should know about AI.

ReadyAI powers the WAICY competitions. Part of Pittsburgh-based WholeRen Education, ReadyAI created an “AI-In-A-Box” kit to teach AI to K-12 students. They use Touretzky’s Calypso software to power the Cozmo robots.

The kits retail for $2,999 and include enough robots, controllers, laptops, tablets, and curriculum to serve 6-15 students. ReadyAI is offering free teacher training sessions to introduce K-12 teachers to the Calypso software, the Cozmo robot, and their curriculum.

ReadyAI is also holding free Calypso sessions for students at Boys and Girls Clubs in Western Pennsylvania. Some of them participated in the first WAICY last July, and Touretzky expects to see them compete this summer. “It’s an interesting scene: middle school kids from low-income households using better robots—and doing more sophisticated things—than most computer science undergraduates because except at the very top tier schools, CS undergrads taking intro to robotics are still stuck with LEGO,” added Touretzky.

The next international WAICY will take place in July. Anyone interested in fielding a team should contact ReadyAI.

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This post was originally published on Forbes.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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