Lewis the robot, now a ‘grad student,’ wins award

Lewis the robotic photographer recently added “graduate student” to his impressive resume when the robot gave a spoken presentation to computer scientists worldwide and local attendees at the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) 2003 annual meeting in Acapulco, Mexico.

Not only did Lewis, the world’s first robotic photographer, make a “canned” spoken presentation — made possible by its inventors’ installation of a sound card — the 300-pound compilation of technology found the registration desk, asked for directions to his presentation room and then navigated himself to the room and to the speaker’s dais, where he gave his presentation.

He did all of this on his own, without any outside intervention.

One of his inventors, William D. Smart, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science and engineering, served as Lewis’ assistant by changing graphic material on a screen for him during the talk.

Lewis’ achievements gave Washington University the Robot Challenge Championship Award and the Ben Wegbreit Award for Integration of AI (artificial intelligence) Technologies, given to the team demonstrating the best integration and effective usage of AI techniques situated on a robot.

Washington University’s team, comprising Smart, Cindy M. Grimm, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science engineering, and four undergraduate and two graduate students, beat a blended team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern universities, Swarthmore College, the Naval Research Laboratory and Metrica TRACLabs, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration contractor.

Smart and Grimm are to Lewis what Dr. Frankenstein was to his big guy. Grimm is co-director (along with Smart and Assistant Professor Robert Pless, Ph.D.) of the University’s Media and Machines Lab, dedicated to the study of computer graphics, computer vision, mobile robotics and machine learning. This lab is Lewis’ home.

“I was delighted that everything worked so well and came together so beautifully,” Smart said. “Lewis gave a very solid performance and managed the whole event without any help. The audience included a lot of locals from Acapulco, who were quite bemused by it all.

“I think that part of the reason we did so well is that we had a small, tightly knit team of students working on the project. The other team had a lot of trouble integrating work from its different institutions together, a problem we didn’t have.”

Smart explained that five years ago, planners of the AAAI came up with the idea of developing a robot competition that would serve as a showcase for current cutting-edge research in the field.

“At the time, nobody expected to be able to complete the whole challenge task, but we’ve made a lot of progress in the past few years,” Smart said.

The robot started at the front of the convention center, and found its way to the registration desk by following signs with arrows on them.

Once it reached the desk, the robot was allowed to use a map of the conference center. The robot’s navigation system uses sensor readings and techniques from probability theory to allow the robot to estimate its position in a map.

Smart and his students spent a few hours before the competition supervising the robot as it built a map of the convention center in Acapulco. After reaching the registration desk, the robot used this map to plan a path to the location of his talk, and then navigated along that path.

What’s next for Lewis?

“We’re planning on using the system as a base for doing more research into long-term robot autonomy and interaction with people,” Smart said. “We’re currently talking with St. Louis Science Center about having the robot running down there for a week in November.”