SRU students gain valuable programming experience working with humanoid robot
From left, Slippery Rock University computing majors Christian Carr, Jeffrey McFarland and Wayne Bloom work in SRU’s Robotics/Artificial Intelligence Laboratory on Pepper, a new humanoid robot acquired by the Computer Science Department.
April 14, 2021
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Computer science students at Slippery Rock University are now adding Pepper to their resumes. But we're not talking about the condiment they would put on their food. Rather, they are becoming "seasoned" programmers by working with Pepper, which is the name of a semi-humanoid, emotional robot manufactured by SoftBank Robotics.
SRU's College of Health, Engineering and Science acquired Pepper for use in the Computer Science Department's Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
"It's incredibly rare for a school like ours to have this type of robot," said Sam Thangiah, professor of computer science and department chair. "Our students are very fortunate to get hands-on programming experience with an emotional robot like this. Working in this lab on this project is going to provide them with an important edge when they are looking for jobs or applying to graduate schools."
Standing 4 feet tall and weighing 60 pounds, Pepper has human qualities such as a head with two eyes, a torso and two arms and hands with fingers. It's equipped with high-definition cameras, sonars, gyroscopes and others sensors that allow it to interact with humans and collect data by mapping its surroundings as it moves around on its wheeled base. Pepper communicates by voice and a 10-inch touchscreen display on its chest.
"Especially since (the COVID-19 pandemic), these robots continue to be more prevalent," Thangiah said. "They are sanitizing warehouses and interacting with people in places like airports, telling people which gate number they should go to and other tasks. It can autonomously take over an entire job because it can understand speech."
Students from Thangiah's Artificial Intelligence class this semester are programming Pepper to greet people on the second-floor hallway of SRU's Advanced Technology and Science Hall. For example, a visitor could ask to be directed to Thangiah's office or the Robotics/IA lab.
"It is definitely a unique experience to do this type of higher-level programming and troubleshooting," said Wayne Bloom, a senior computing major from Everett. "There's a lot of self-learning and pushing through frustrations that goes into something that is fairly new technology. And it's cool to work with a piece of equipment that's able to talk back to you."
For most of the students in the 400-level AI class, their time in the lab is the only in-person class activity they'll have all semester, with 80% of SRU's classes conducted online this semester because of COVID-19. Bloom, along with Christian Carr, a senior computing major from Pittsburgh, and Jeffrey McFarland, a senior computing major from New Castle, spend about four hours per week working together in the lab programming Pepper and using operating software called Choregraphe. Their IA class is conducted online.
"I can teach them things online, but to actually implement it on a real-life device takes a lot of dedication," Thangiah said. "That is what employers are looking for, to know that they can give someone a project and that they can stick with it, see it through and deliver. (Our students) are learning skills like persistence and tenacity that they don't even realize."
Carr was recently hired for a full-time, summer internship as an application developer for Highmark in Pittsburgh. He said his interviewers were particularly interested in his work with Pepper. Bloom and McFarland are also interested in software engineering positions.
In future semesters, more students will be able to work with Pepper in other classes and outside of class through a Robotics Group organized within the department. The Robotics/IA Laboratory at SRU already has several robot kits and 11 smaller, two-legged humanoid robots, called NAO, which were also developed by SoftBank Robotics.
"But something like (Pepper) is far more advanced," McFarland said. "It's very exciting to be stepping into this world of AI and it's something I didn't expect when I signed up for this class."
More information about computer science programs at SRU are available on the department's webpage.
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