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 UP-CLOSE

BY DAVID ZAX
UP-CLOSE: ANDREW WILLIAMS

GOAL ORIENTED

Robo-soccer coach, teacher and fundraiser, this Spelman College computer science professor aims high. Can he inspire a black, female Bill Gates?


ATLANTA -- Like many engineering educators, Andrew Williams is good at connecting seemingly disparate elements. Today, he’s working to solve two different puzzles simultaneously: how to attract more minorities and women to the field of engineering, and how to build an unbeatable robotic soccer team.

Williams, an artificial intelligence and bioinformatics expert, surprised many who knew him by leaving the University of Iowa, a research powerhouse, in 2004 to join much smaller Spelman College as an associate professor in the computer and information sciences department. Inspired by Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life, he felt it was his “God-given purpose” to help uplift the African-American community. Atlanta’s renowned historically black women’s college seemed a more promising venue than Iowa, where he had supervised just two black students in five years.

Arriving at Spelman with several Sony AIBO robot dogs in tow and grant money from Coca-Cola and NASA, Williams lured undergraduates to the challenge and fun of engineering with SpelBots, a robotic soccer team that he also hopes will advance research.

The SpelBots team set its sights on the international RoboCup, an annual robotics soccer event. “Most people would not even think to have freshmen program for the passing event at RoboCup,” Williams says, but “I don’t place limits on the students.”

SpelBots was one of only 24 teams to qualify for the 2005 RoboCup in Osaka, Japan, generating international excitement as the first all-female team and the first from a black college to do so. The Spelman women kept going. In 2007, they tied for second place in the passing challenge.

RoboCup’s organizers predict that by 2050, a team of robots will be able to defeat human World Cup champions. Williams’s students would prefer not to wait. At the Spelman lab recently, Jazmine Miller, who hopes to start her own video-game or robotics firm, put an AIBO robo-puppy through a hip-hop dance designed by classmate Jonecia Keels, followed by kicks. Hands-on work with the robots trains the students in programming techniques, cognitive architecture and artificial intelligence while introducing them to vision software and image segmentation, according to Keels. “I definitely got a head start on some computer science skills,” she says, as well as a boost in working on health-care robotics.

“I don’t place limits on the students.” - Andrew Williams

Although SpelBots team members have been greeted like rock stars in some quarters, their celebrity status has yet to boost Spelman’s engineering enrollment significantly. Still, the coach’s style draws praise.

“Working with Dr. Williams is amazing,” says Keels, who hopes one day to head an Apple software engineering team. Not only is he easy to approach for advice, she says, but he treats the SpelBots team like grad students, encouraging them to reach beyond the classroom for knowledge.

Grant-making institutions share her enthusiasm. Having raised some $6 million for research during his career, Williams is now the driving force behind ARTSI (Advancing Robotics Technology for Societal Impact), an alliance of nine black colleges and seven research institutions that supports faculty development, undergraduate summer research and K-12 outreach. ARTSI has landed a $2 million NSF grant and support from Seagate, Google, Apple, Intel, Microsoft and iRobot. Williams has also mounted YouTube videos of dancing robo-pups and posted blogs discussing the achievements of ARTSI students and schools.

“I think Andrew has had a tremendous impact,” said David S. Touretzky, a research professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who has collaborated with Williams since 2004.

Williams envisions a day when African-Americans not only consume technology but are leading producers of it. At present, “you can’t think of a ‘black Bill Gates,’” he says. “The Tiger Woods of computer science isn’t out there.” He reflects a moment, then smiles: “Maybe it’s going to be Jazmine.”

 

David Zax is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. See videos at artsialliance.org

 

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