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CONTACT: Bruce Smith
Public Information Officer
(310) 434-4209
DATE: June 1, 2006


Students in SMC’s newly launched robotics and artificial intelligence program will tell you they are having a blast – building and programming funny-looking robots and creating animated “chatbots.”

But the fun they are having belies the seriousness of their purpose: being part of a technological explosion that is having a major impact on the world, from factories to homes to shopping malls to outer space.

“SMC is on the leading edge among community colleges in training students in this exciting and dynamic field of robotics and artificial intelligence,” says Gina Jerry, chair or the Computer Science and Information Systems Department. “We know of no other community college in the state that offers this program.”

In addition, the program has received a huge boost with a $385,000 grant from the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corporation, with funding from NASA. The grant is awarded only to colleges that serve historically underrepresented minorities. (SMC qualifies as an Hispanic-serving institution because more than 25 percent of its enrollment is Hispanic.)

Recognizing that the robotics and artificial intelligence field is a hot one with excellent career opportunities, even for students with just two years of training, SMC’s Computer Science and Information Systems Department launched the program in spring 2005 with an introductory robotics course.

The program is being rolled out in phases, with an expert systems and chatbot course offered in fall 2005 and an embedded systems class beginning in fall 2006. Other courses in the pipeline include industrial robots and technology project management. Students can earn a certificate in the field that will help them start careers.

In the robotics courses, students learn to build and program mobile robots that interact with changing environments. Hardware includes computers and other controllers, motors, arms, grippers, sensors, cameras and more. The robots recognize objects and speech, talk back and navigate around cluttered rooms.

“I was able to combine my knowledge of building and programming and actually use mobile robots, which was thrilling,” says 15-year-old Beverly Hills High School junior Erich Sorger, who took the class at SMC last fall through his school’s concurrent enrollment program. “After taking this course I gained a real world experience with robots, and I am just beginning to understand the infinite number of services that robots can be created for to help mankind.”

Indeed, robotics professor Harold Rogler, whose passion for his subject is contagious, talks about the far-reaching effects of robots in society.

“Many mobile robots work today unseen except by only a few people,” Rogler says. “These robots inspect sewers, water pipes, oil pipelines and air-conditioning ducts. They have roved about our moon and Mars and have photographed and probed Saturn and other planets and their moons such as Titan. They explore the oceans, map sunken ships and roam for 30 days at a stretch off our Continental Shelves. They scrub the dirty skins of jet airplanes. They transport food and linens and medicines and waste in hospitals. One has walked into the crater of an active volcano. Robots helped clean up, or at least serve as mobile radiation detectors, at the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.”

And his list goes on to include robots that look for leaks in nuclear waste and toxic material containers, robots that can help take care of housebound patients by performing such tasks as giving medicine, and robots that entertain, whether they are dinosaurs at Disneyland or man-made sharks in movies.

Perhaps the most extensively used – and commercially significant – robots are those in industry.
Rogler says that by the end of 2003, there were more than 800,000 industrial robots in use in a wide range of factories, assembling cars, television sets, appliances, computer circuit boards and more. There are even robots that pick up chocolates from conveyer belts and place them in boxes.

Robots are dexterous, fast and strong and don’t generally require much maintenance, he said.
In the expert systems and chatbot course, students learn about artificial intelligence and how to program computers with “virtual humans.” These are animated characters – with unique personalities, facial expressions and lip-synched speech – that appear on computer screens and are programmed to help users with a wide range of questions or tasks.

Professor Ken Geddes, who teaches the course, says the chatbots can be used for a wide variety of purposes.

For example, a computer with a chatbot could be set up in a shopping mall or building of any kind and a user could ask it such simple questions as, “Where is the bathroom?”
They can also be used for more sophisticated purposes, such as teaching someone a foreign language.
“Chatbots are the next generation in user-friendliness,” Geddes says. “Faces are more human than machines, and people learn through pictures.”

Geddes says a growing number of companies are looking for people trained in this field, including Malibu-based Conversive Technologies.

Embedded systems, meanwhile, is the largest and fastest growing segment of the worldwide microprocessor and microcontroller industry, making up 99.999 percent of the worldwide unit volume in microprocessors.
Abbas Dehkhoda, who will teach the course starting in fall 2006, said embedded systems are found everywhere – in cell phones, thermostats, copiers, microwaves and many other appliances and electronic devices.

And the applications and developments in this field are endless, Dehkhoda says. For example, a person in a supermarket will be able, through a microcontroller in his credit card, to connect to his home refrigerator to find out what food it contains.

Analysts say that embedded systems – which are easy to program – are in more than 90 percent of electronic devices worldwide, and by the year 2010, there will be 10 times more embedded system programmers than other types of programmers.

“The possibilities in our new program are huge and exciting,” Jerry says. “We believe that we will fire the imaginations of many students to go on and seek careers in the field, either right out of SMC or after transferring to four-year universities.”

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