The stakes have never been higher in the Bryant University rotunda as competitors prepare for their exhibition matches. Teams work tirelessly to prepare their champions, solving problems on the fly that push them to their limits as science and technology professor Brian Blais floats from group to group, offering expert advice and support from last minute.
Primed, polished and ready, rivals come to life as they gauge their opponents and the clash begins. Coaches and trainers watch as their students take on all challengers, making final adjustments along the way to ensure performance and guarantee success.
The robots are ready to win.
In Bryant’s “Artificial Intelligence and Robotics” course, teams of students build working robots that can compete in board games like Breakout, Connect Four, and Tic-tac-toe and constantly defeat human opponents. Along the way, they study key concepts in coding, engineering, and AI – lessons they put into practice through hands-on experience.
“It’s a very hands-on project, where students can see the results of their work. But there is also a significant level of creativity in there,” says Blais. “They develop their own solutions to the problems they encounter and are able to solve these problems in different ways.”
The power of programming
Students come to class with a variety of programming experience, but the robotics project helps them all see their studies and their own potential in a new light. “The first week of class, when we started talking about the project, I was like, ‘We’re not going to be able to do this,'” says 23-year-old data science student David Poretsky. “But as we kept learning new piece after new piece in class, week after week, it was really just about putting together everything we had learned. You come to understand that it’s actually something that we can do.
“It’s a really fun way to put what we’ve learned to the test.”
In addition to practical know-how, the course also focuses on competing theories of artificial intelligence and decision-making as well as ethical issues related to these fields. “You start to realize that the potential really is limitless,” says Adam Dahill ’23. “If you start with a project like this and can continue to develop it, you learn that you can really do a lot. I think that’s pretty cool.
In order to build their robot champions, students learn to code strategies and responses; design and create prototypes from LEGO bricks; and wiring sensors and motors, adding engineering elements to the project that help students understand the real-world application of their knowledge. “It’s a really fun way to put what we’ve learned to the test,” says Natalia Kuipers ’23. “And being able to physically see where your code is going wrong adds another level to what you learn.”
Throughout the course, students learn to use Python, a high-level programming language. “I found that the ability to program is one of the most transferable and useful skills you can have. It can be applied literally at every level,” says Blais. “A robotics project like this helps students learn these skills in a fun way.”
For Anxhela Elezaj ’23, a finance major who is currently a portfolio manager for Bryant’s student-run investment fund Archway, the course is an opportunity to learn about concepts that are quickly becoming invaluable in all areas of activity. “Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more important every day,” she notes. “Learning programming and gaining experience as students will help us all in the future.”
Room for creativity
No two robots created in the course are the same, and teams have the freedom to approach the project in their own way. “One of the things that makes it exciting is that we built them ourselves,” notes Gianni Coelho ’23. “You develop a connection with what you’ve built and want to make sure it works as well as you can make it work.”
“I think my favorite thing about the course is that you can use your brain more holistically.”
“We had a lot of fun building the robots, and you’re even starting to get a little proud of it,” says Kuipers. “It was really amazing the first time we saw him do what we told him to do.”
The design element also allows students to express themselves in different ways. “I think my favorite thing about the course is that you can use your brain more holistically,” Coelho says. “You put the mathematical design part and the creative part together and you manage to find the harmony between the two.”
Try the challenge
Ensuring robots are able to “see” the board, decide strategy, adapt to their opponent’s choices, and physically move game pieces requires students to test a variety of skills, including problem solving and rapid iteration as their designs and knowledge evolve. It also means being able to solve problems, both numerical and mechanical, because a single mistake can have serious consequences.
“Every little move you make, everything you change, will have a direct impact on everything else you’ve done,” says Coelho. “Sometimes that means one little thing goes wrong and everything breaks, which means you have to rebuild everything.”
“I think we really are at our best when we push ourselves and try to solve difficult problems.”
Putting it together and testing their work in real time helps students gain a new perspective on its underlying principles. “Understanding how something works in relation to code and then being able to fix it helps you understand how it really works,” says Nathan Mulder ’23. “You start realizing what you’re going to get before you actually launch a program.”
Learning how to handle complex problems is an important part of the course, says Blais. “I think we really are at our best when we push ourselves and try to solve difficult problems,” he says. “When students are finally able to overcome an obstacle, there’s a real ‘ah ha’ moment.”
When that moment comes, says Ethan Savoie ’23, it’s worth the whole fight. “The first week of class we were doing simple coding, just to create a box with a cursor in it. The first time I was able to do it without help, well, that was the best feeling and it motivates you to do more.
“I think what I’m most proud of about this project is that I went through the whole process: encountering problems, solving them and moving on to the next one,” says Michael Chiang ’23.