Digital Gretzky

U of I researchers developing an air hockey playing computer

By Jared Mauck

      Those doubters who think computers won't eventually be able to act like humans just got one step closer to being proven wrong. University of Illinois researchers, led by general engineering professor Mark Spong, have created a robot that plays air hockey.
      But this robot is more than just something to keep Spong busy on a Sunday afternoon. Spong's robot is a giant step toward intelligent robots that one day could perform tasks current robots are unable to do. Spong described his robot as "a tool that illustrates theoretical problems in intelligent control," so that researchers can conduct experiments to test them.
      Spong designed the robot along with fellow professors Gerald DeJong and Seth Hutchinson in the Coordinated Science Lab at Illinois. The trick to getting the robot to work, according to Spong, was to "teach" it to continually sense its surroundings, interpret the data and react. Some of the ways in which researchers accomplished this was to include a camera in the robot's vision system, which tries to predict the motion of the puck. In an ideal situation, the robot would then learn from its own mistakes.
      For now, the robot has been tasting defeat quite often. Spong and his staff are hopeful that it will learn enough to become a very successful player. But more important than its win-loss record are the new options the robot gives researchers in their robotic applications. Spong sees a day when robots will be able to do such things as retrieve wreckage from the ocean floor and clean up hazardous waste, which has been their goal all along. In the short term, however, the team plans to continue working toward an improved air hockey playing robot.

Movie courtesy WCIA-TV (ch. 3)

WCIA-TV's Jen Roscoe challenges the computer to a game of air hockey