Rainy days and robots

Such a gloomy, rainy day. Perfect for staying home and hacking.

One course I'm teaching this semester is artificial intelligence. It has nothing to do with my usual areas of interest, but it has always had a special place in my brain. Especially the early symbolic stuff… it's good fun, no matter that the grand claims for it never panned out.

So I decided, in my subversive PL geek way, to use this opportunity to introduce my students to Scheme. Specifically, I'm using the PLT DrScheme environment as a companion for my AI course. I know that true Lisp is traditional, but I was really seduced by Scheme in my younger years (until ML came along) and it has been a pleasure so far to come back to it. Plus I can set up some nifty cross-platform graphical simulation thingamabobs for my students, which they'll appreciate.

I chose the AI book by Nilsson. In my first course, we used Winston, and Russell/Norvig seems to be dominant these days. But I'm never one to choose the dominant platform just because it's dominant (haven't owned a copy of MS Windows since version 3.0). I still have fond memories from Winston, and was a touch disappointed to find that it hasn't been updated in all these intervening years.

Anyway, Nilsson starts out with a “grid world” inhabited by an intelligent agent (robot). The first task is to try to make the robot follow the wall clockwise around the room. In other words, the first smidgen of intelligent, goal-directed behavior is to avoid walking into walls. Impressive, eh? Next stop: The Matrix.So, I used DrScheme to bring the grid world to life, and allow my students (who, after all, have no Scheme exposure at all) to dig right in developing little wall-following robots, just by typing stuff like (if (or s1 s2) ’north (if ... )), where s1–s8 are sensors for the 8-directions (clockwise starting from north-west) that return true if a wall is detected. Once you set up your little if-then-else robot controller, you can graphically place a robot on the grid and have it travel one step at a time around the room. The code for my simulator is here: gridworld.zip; just open grid-main.scm in DrScheme. (Select the graphical language, with MrEd + MzScheme.)

Next we're going to jump right in to two kinds of machine learning, first by inferring a decision tree from a set of examples (Quinlan ID3 algorithm), then by evolving robot behavior by genetic programming. Both of these can be readily applied to the robot world, among other applications.

The students seemed fairly excited by Scheme, on their first exposure. “It's so easy,” one said, although admittedly he had just been watching me; they have yet to write any code on their own. Nevertheless, I was a little surprised by the enthusiasm. Good signs.

©20022015 Christopher League