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Thursday, July 07, 2005

The men on the poster, robot soccer and a grand challenge...

Manuela Veloso opened her ASAMS talk today by asking how many of us knew whom the men playing chess on the conference poster were. The audience seemed mostly blank on this point, though I imagine the sizable contingent of CMU students did know the answer, but were keeping quiet. The men of course are Herb Simon and Allen Newell two of the founders of AI. I am always interested to hear about the history of scientific fields. We were taught little about the history of computer science at my undergrad school, so since I came to CMU I have been trying to catch-up. Fortunately no one seems to talk more passionately about AI history than Manuela. Manuela advised us all to get hold of Herb Simon’s autobiography – “Models of my life”, but admitted that she had just bought every copy available on Amazon. So interested attendees may have to resort to libraries or the second-hand market.

As Maayan already mentioned Manuela challenged the audience’s concept of agents by claiming that software agents were not quite real agents because they don’t really have a perception component. While some software agents probably do have a perception component e.g. smart rooms as suggested by an anonymous commenter, it is easy to forget about the issue of perception when working on software agents and theory. Manuela gave a very entertaining account of the problem of perception and uncertainty in robot soccer – describing her “soccer mum” like response to a referee in 1998 picking up one of CMU’s robots in a game and putting it somewhere else on the field. At the time, the concept of a robot being picked up had not occurred to the team because most robots were heavy like Xavier or designed for Mars or volcanoes or similar places where there were simply no people around to pick them up! So the nice mathematics behind the soccer robots’ localization simply had not been designed to cope with being transported. But the story had a happy ending, despite the robots spending most of the game completely lost, because every time they found themselves they were picked up again, the team somehow managed to win. :)

Manuela’s example served to illustrate that it is very important to put ideas and theories into practice. The hacking required may be tiresome sometimes, but it is not possible to foresee all eventualities when designing agents (robotic or otherwise) that need to interact with the environment, people and other agents. Implementing agents that actually operate in the real environments they are designed for can expose important new challenges!

I’ll end this entry by asking for suggestions about a question Manuela asked – what is a grand challenge for software agents? In robotics there is the DARPA grand challenge and robot soccer, but is there something similar we can aim for in software agents? Does the Trading Agent competition or the General Game Playing competition qualify?

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good question! Grand challenges seem to make more sense for some subfields and technologies than others, and I can't really say why. Robotics, computer vision, space, bioinformatics, etc. readily admit grand challenges. Databases, programming languages, software agents, machine learning less so.

9:35 PM  
Blogger jkopena said...

It's a cop-out, but there's something to be said for the goal of software agents being simply that not one even knows they're there. Many of the applications and roles of agents that people discuss fall into the category of being best done when no one is aware that you've actually done anything. What's more impressive, that your agent booked a meeting for you, or that it negotiated with 7 other agents to pick a time and reschedule 2 other meetings, without you being any the wiser?

Granted though, that's not a super-focused, grand challenge goal to rally behind. The human-level soccer robots by 2050 is probably going to be touch to top...

11:41 PM  
Blogger paolo said...

Check the
http://www.lips.utexas.edu/art-testbed/

It is just launched but maybe will grow overtime to represent a playground for "social" agents.

The Agent Reputation and Trust (ART) Testbed initiative has been launched with the goal of establishing a testbed for agent reputation- and trust-related technologies. The ART Testbed is designed to serve in two roles:

* as a competition forum in which researchers can compare their technologies against objective metrics, and
* as an experimental tool, with flexible parameters, allowing researchers to perform customizable, easily-repeatable experiments.

8:32 AM  

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