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ASU robot teaches itself how to shoot hoops — in a matter of hours

Robot automatically discovers need for system of dynamic movement, learns it.
November 3, 2016

Engineering professor Heni Ben Amor creates algorithms that allow the device to program itself far faster than a human could

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.

Plenty of robots can shoot hoops. It wouldn’t be news that an Arizona State University robotics expert created a robot that can sink a basketball.

What’s new is that the robot taught itself to shoot a basketball in a matter of hours, something it would take even an expert programmer days to accomplish.

“If you think about it, the human would first have to learn how to” program robot behavior, said Heni Ben Amor. “You’d have to go through a master’s and PhD program. If you take all of that into account, it’s years. If you’re an expert, it’d be a couple of days, maybe a week.”

Ben Amor is an assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering's School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, where he leads the ASU Interactive Robotics Laboratory.

He and his team built a robot dubbed Sun Devil with a pair of arms.

“We pose the task to a robot, and through trial and error the robot learns the task on its own, ideally in a limited amount for time,” Ben Amor said. “You go for lunch, and by the time you come back, it’s done.”

He meant that literally. They plugged the algorithms into two robots. One learned in two hours, the other in three.

“For our group this was a milestone,” Ben Amor said.

Robots have wear and tear. They break. The goal here was to have a robot that can learn very quickly and program itself. If robots can program themselves, humans wouldn’t have to do it. It’s a skill that generally requires a doctorate in robotics and computer science.

Sun Devil started from scratch. It didn’t have any kind of idea what kind of movement would allow it to get the ball into the hoop. The only requirement Ben Amor’s group gave it was the ball should be in the center of the hoop.

The robot tried out different movements in the beginning, some of which weren’t dynamic. Bit by bit it figured out how to improve its movements to get the ball closer and closer to the hoop. Automatically, it discovered that sinking the ball actually required a dynamic motion, and it discovered that motion.

The key was that the robot did all of this as quickly as possible, with a minimum of trials.

ASU assistant professor Heni Ben Amor's robot, called Sun Devil, taught itself to shoot hoops in a matter of hours. It also taught itself an algorithm for explosive movement. Photo by Jessica Hockreiter/Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

“A lot of machine learning algorithms, many of these algorithms requires hundreds of thousands of trials before you actually learn something,” Ben Amor said. “If you wanted to optimize a robot car, you would have to drive it around and do crash tests for hundreds of thousands of hours before it learned something. That, of course, is not really helpful.”

It would take a team of scientists creating equations and models to program a dynamic motion to sink a basketball. Using two arms makes the task even more complicated.

“If you have two arms, it becomes a much more challenging task because these arms have to be synchronized in time in order to make sure the ball doesn’t drop out of the hand of the robot,” Ben Amor said.

The new algorithm created by Ben Amor’s group does this very quickly.

“It systematically tries out different parts of the search space, so different possible potential solutions,” he said. “Systematically, it tries to figure out what is the most likely part of the search space where my solution is. It’s an informed way of guessing or estimating where the solution is.”

And the result is nothing but net.

Top photo: ASU assistant professor Heni Ben Amor (right) has created a robot that can shoot a basketball after programming itself in a matter of hours. Computer science graduate student Yash Rathore helped show off the technology. Photo by Jessica Hockreiter/ Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News


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ASU jointly acquires major Western film history items

Film-memorabilia collection features Bronco Billy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
ASU professor says items could help address Native American stereotypes.
November 3, 2016

Partnering with Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, university adds posters, press books and movies dating from the early 1900s

In a joint acquisition, ASU has just scored what scholars believe is one of the most comprehensive collections of Western film memorabilia ever gathered.

The posters, lobby cards, film stills, press books and movies dating from the early 1900s put the university and its partner, Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, in position to boost research from several fields and help dispel stereotypes and misconceptions of American Indians.

The $6 million, 5,000-piece collection “cuts across so many disciplines,” said Peter Lehman, a film and media studies professor and director of ASU’s Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. “I can see film, history and Native American students receiving great benefit.”

Recording the cultural memories of the American West, the Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film History features images and illustrations of movie cowboys including Bronco Billy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

The collection also "puts the Native American on center stage again,” ASU history professor Don Fixico said.

Fixico — who is affiliated with the Shawnee, Sac & Fox, Muscogee Creek and Seminole tribes — teaches a film class called “Outlaws, Indians and Ladies of the Wild West” and said that before the advent of Westerns, Native Americans had been marginalized, largely forgotten and nearly wiped out.   

“When film came along, we became part of the American narrative again,” Fixico said. “We were sidekicks in the beginning, but in the 1960s and 1970s, we became main characters.”

The museum was to display a tiny fraction of the collection at a private celebration event Thursday evening. 

ASU and Scottsdale’s Museum of the West were scheduled to hold a private event Thursday evening, celebrating their educational and community partnership. The museum plans to exhibit selected works next summer, and scholars and researchers will be able to access the collection in fall 2017.

Rennard Strickland, a professor and senior scholar in residence at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, said he started gathering the memorabilia in the early 1970s.

“I can never do anything in a mild way,” he said. “I loved these films growing up.”

Strickland, of Osage and Cherokee heritage, is an expert on Indian law and passed his collection to ASU and the Museum of the West so that it could be used as a teaching tool and resource to faculty, students and scholars.

Western film historian Charlie LeSueur said the collection “outshines any film poster collection out there,” including the Autry Museum of the American West and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which are both in Los Angeles.

“It’s historically beneficial to what I’m doing, and I know it will help others who study and follow the genre,” said LeSueur, who has written three books on Western films. The items could "answer questions I've had for decades." 

Top photo: A 1939 movie poster illustration for "Stagecoach," considered an American Western film classic starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford. This is one of approxmiately 5,000 pieces in the new Rennard Strickland Collection of Western Film History recently acquired by ASU and Scottsdale's Museum of the West. Courtesy of Rennard Strickland.