AI and the science of abstraction

ASU's Siddharth Srivastava is working to equip artificial intelligence for real-world tasks

August 6, 2020

Artificial intelligence, or AI, promises transformative innovation for transportation, manufacturing, health care and education. It may also bring freedom from tedious tasks. Imagine robots doing laundry at your home or inspecting cargo at your local airport. These scenarios are not yet reality because of a longstanding problem in the field of computing: how to manage uncertainty.

“What should a household robot do if it finds a pet cat napping in a heap of dirty clothes? Or what should an inspection robot do with an unidentified package?” asked Siddharth Srivastava, an assistant professor of computer science in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “Constantly asking humans for help is counterproductive, and immediate communication may not always be possible. We need them to compute what to do and to fall back to humans only when necessary.” Siddharth Srivastava is working to equip AI for real-world tasks. The National Science Foundation is recognizing Assistant Professor Siddharth Srivastava for his research to equip artificial intelligence with the capacity to navigate the unknowns of real-world environments. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

These examples represent what are known as open-world environments, and they are a world apart from the controlled conditions of a robotics lab. Robots and autonomous agent systems, such as Siri or Alexa, currently lack the ability to process unknowns, and relationships among those unknowns, to navigate open-world settings in a way that humans do intuitively.

Srivastava and his team at the Autonomous Agents and Intelligent Robots, or AAIR, laboratory research how sequences of decisions are made across extended periods of time amid uncertainty. In that domain, they are working to solve the problem of unknowns within AI and advance robotics to a new level of utility, reliability and safety.

“What excites me the most is determining how we can design algorithms that let AI systems automatically compute what they should do next, and then next after that, in order to reliably achieve complex, multi-step, user-assigned objectives in the real world,” he said.

Srivastava’s vision has captured the attention of the National Science Foundation, which has selected him for a 2020 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award. Such recognition is reserved for researchers who show the potential to be academic role models and to advance the missions of their organizations. CAREER awards provide approximately half a million dollars over five years to further each recipient’s research.

For Srivastava and his team, the key to success in this work is abstract — literally the ability to reason with abstractions.

“For instance, asking an autonomous system to bring me a cup of tea is an abstract instruction,” he said. “I don’t specify where the tea is located, how it should be made or where it should be brought. Lack of such detailed information can be viewed as an abstraction.”

He explains that the seemingly simple act of a robot delivering that hypothetical cup of tea involves thousands of decision points related to planning and movement through an uncontrolled environment. What if there are children running through the house? What if the power goes out? Humans manage these uncertainties without even thinking. But the actual process represents a distillation of critical information from a vast field of data.

“Finding concrete solutions in dynamic situations with unknown numbers and types of objects is difficult,” Srivastava said. “But in some of my earlier work, I found that identifying the right abstractions enables you to compute generalized plans or generalized solutions that work very efficiently. So, my group and I are using these methods to develop AI systems that can operate reliably and efficiently in open-world environments.”

Srivastava believes that the Fulton Schools community has the talent and resources necessary to develop the framework and the algorithms that will clear one of the biggest hurdles in AI. Through such innovation, doing the laundry may never be the same.

Gary Werner

Senior Media Relations Officer, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


ASU's Mellon Projecting All Voices Fellowship announces 2020–21 artists

August 6, 2020

A regional cohort of four artists from Arizona, Utah and the Diné Nation has been selected to participate in the 2020–21 Mellon Projecting All Voices Fellowship, a joint venture between Arizona State University's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and ASU Gammage. 

The fellows are Elizabeth Burden, Milta Ortiz, Horacio Rodriguez and Jake Skeets. Photos of four Projecting All Voices fellows. The 2020–21 Projecting All Voices Fellows are (from left) Milta Ortiz, Horacio Rodriguez, Elizabeth Burden and Jake Skeets. Download Full Image

This is the third cohort for the fellowship, which provides opportunities for BIPOCBlack, Indigenous and people of color. artists and culture workers to advance ideas and projects that investigate race, identity, cultural heritage, power, policy, ability and/or place and community. 

“This is the first time since graduate school that I get to focus entirely on my creative work,” Ortiz said. “As a BIPOC woman/mother who hustles to make a career for myself and earn an income, this fellowship affords me the time and support to deepen my craft.” 

Projecting All Voices fellows have access to a network of resources that includes mentorship, unrestricted financial support, professional development experiences, opportunities to develop and present their work, and connection to experts in the field.

Through the fellowship, artists work with communities underrepresented in higher education and art institutions. Fellows also inform conversations about how educational and cultural institutions must adapt to prepare, support and advance the creative voices of a changing America through an equitable lens and framework of practice.

“ASU Gammage is thrilled to be continuing the partnership with Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in advancing the Mellon Projecting All Voices Fellowship,” said Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, ASU vice president for cultural affairs and executive director of ASU Gammage. “Supporting the artistic development of BIPOC artists and facilitating access to multiple cultural networks are fundamental to our work and embody our commitment to racial equity in the arts.”

Elizabeth Burden is a multidisciplinary artist, blending studio work with social practice. Her recent work focuses on three interrelated themes: geographies, space and place; contemporary state and societal violences; and legacies and vestiges of historical violence and trauma. The common thread that runs through all her work is to look at old realities anew, to confront those realities, reflect upon them, shape them and transform them – whether through artistic practice or through community process, she believes we can be catalysts for change. In 2019, she was artist-in-residence at the Santa Fe Arts Institute (Truth and Reconciliation Residency), and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity (Trainings for the Not Yet). She holds a master’s degree in geographic information science technology and bachelor’s degrees in journalism and in visual arts.

Milta Ortiz is a Salvi award-winning playwright, who moonlights as a poet, performer and writer. A transplant from the Bay Area, she now calls Tucson home. Her recent play “Pilar and Paloma” was commissioned and developed in part at Pima Community College, and she is working with Quetzal Guerrero and Borderlands Theater on "Anita," a musical in the universe of Annie with the Tucson sound. Her play “Judge Torres,” commissioned by Milagro Theatre Group, toured nationally to colleges and universities. She received NEA Artworks and NALAC Artist grants to develop and produce her play “Sanctuary,” which premiered at Borderlands Theater in September 2018. Her play “Más” was produced at San Diego State University (2018), Su Teatro (March 2017), and co-produced by Laney College (March, 2016) and Ubuntu Theater Project (May 2016). It premiered at Borderlands Theater in September 2015 thanks in part to an NEA Artworks grant and was nominated for a Steinberg-ATCA Award. Borderlands’ production toured to Northern Arizona University (2016) and Arizona State University (2017). Más was selected to the Latino Theater Commons Carnaval play festival and the Kilroys List in 2015. She co-runs Borderlands Theater and teaches theater at Pima Community College. She is mom to a creative second grader. She earned an MFA from Northwestern University and a BA from San Francisco State University. 

Horacio Rodriguez is an artist and educator originally from Houston, Texas. After graduating from Montana State University with an MFA in ceramics in 2016, he received the Morales Teaching Fellowship from the University of Utah and moved to Salt Lake City to teach and further expand his studio practice. Prior to that, he studied ceramics in Japan; taught art, digital graphics and ceramics at Chavez High School on the east side of Houston, working primarily with the immigrant communities; and traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, immersing himself in the culture, language and food of his ancestors.

"My work is about the many borders I have crossed in my life,” he said. “I carry many of these borders with me in my memories and produce work about these physical and psychological borders. As a product of multiple cultures and identities, my art is used as a vehicle to explore the creation of my personal narrative within the hybrid cultures of the borderlands."

Jake Skeets is Black Streak Wood, born for Water’s Edge. He is Diné from Vanderwagen, New Mexico. Skeets is the author of “Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers,” a National Poetry Series-winning collection of poems. He holds an MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Skeets is also a winner of the 2018 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Contest and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He edits an online publication called Cloudthroat and organizes a poetry salon and reading series called Pollentongue, based in the Southwest. He is a member of Saad Bee Hózhǫ́: A Diné Writers’ Collective and currently teaches at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona. 

The Projecting All Voices Fellowship and visiting artist series is generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“The Mellon Foundation’s support of the Projecting All Voices Fellowship offers ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and ASU Gammage an extraordinary opportunity to collaborate as impact partners to support the advancement of underinvested artists and communities within Arizona and throughout the Southwest region,” said Tiffany Ana López, ASU provost fellow and in-coming vice provost for inclusion and community engagement.

“Programs like this strengthen our regional arts ecosystem with the benefit of also bolstering the diversity of voice and quality of engagement in institutions of higher education.”

Sarah A. McCarty

Marketing and communications coordinator, Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts