The Robot Exercise
Outfitting A Robot Laboratory
Sample Syllabus for an AI Course
Robot Laboratory Handouts
In this exercise, four students simulate a robot. One acts as the robot's vision system, one as its brain, and two as its arms. The task of the robot is to stack one box on top of another. The boxes should be sufficiently large or heavy that they cannot be picked up with one hand.
We have used this exercise at two different points in an undergraduate AI course: the first day of class or at the point in the course when we switch from "brain-in-a-box" topics like search and planning to topics dealing with sensing and acting, like vision, NLP, and robotics. It works well early in the course, as both an ice-breaker, and a demonstration that what seems easy is not necessarily so. It could also be used in a general introductory CS course as an introduction to AI.
Before beginning, explain to the students that they will be considering how an intelligent robot interacts with the world. Describe in general terms current capabilities of vision and robotics systems. You may want to use illustrative anecdotes from the recent literature or from the AAAI robot competitions.
Describe the task to be accomplished: given two boxes on a table, we wish to stack one on top of the other. Ask for volunteers and choose/draft four students. It is best to choose the brightest and most outgoing one to be the brain as this task is tough and frustrating even for a really good student. The arms are blindfolded, and the brain is seated facing away from the table on which the boxes are placed. Here are the ground rules:
Once the arms are blindfolded and the brain is seated, put the boxes into position. To make the task more difficult, stand one box on end or place it at an angle on the table.
It's best to allow most or all of a class period for this exercise, as it's likely to take 30-60 minutes to get the boxes stacked. While the students are working, you may want to step in occasionally to ask the brain to explain what it is doing or comment on what is happening. If the students get frustrated or stuck replace them with new volunteers (be sure to change the box configurations in this case).
Once the exercise is over, you may want to comment on a number of topics.
Pick one error, miscommunication, or instance of bad luck from the robot exercise.
Discuss why it occurred and how it might be prevented. Can you foresee any new problems
that would be created by implementing your method of preventing the original problem?