Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Forget Watson, Meet CommBot BY DANIEL RUBINO

While IBM’s Watson was busy embarrassing Ken Jennings and the whole human race on Jeopardy!, a cutting edge robot at St. Vincent College was busy at work: sleeping through its class, Introduction to Media Production.

The underachieving computer’s name is CommBot, the latest computer design challenge being tackled by SVC’s CIS department. CommBot is a computer program attempting to pass for a Communications major at St. Vincent College.

“We have clear objectives to measure CommBot’s success,” says senior CIS major and CommBot programmer Derek Kaser. “Ultimately the question is, can we design a computer that’s smart enough to pass the required classes to earn a bachelor’s degree in communications? We believe we can.”

The 90 servers that comprise IBM’s Watson fill an entire room; CommBot is a 69MB file running on a six year-old laptop in the corner of senior Kaser’s room. CommBot never attends class - not because it’s a computer without legs but because it is a communications major.

To pass its classes, CommBot has an algorithm that identifies classmates and emails all of them asking to see what they did for homework. CommBot then quickly blends the answers it receives into a (hopefully) passable answer. CommBot emails its assignments to the professor along with a randomly generated excuse why it will be missing class tomorrow. “The excuse generator has been a trouble spot for us,” says Kaser. “So far, CommBot has told the same professor three times that its grandfather has passed away and that it will need some time to be with family. Fortunately, the professor didn’t seem to notice.”

CommBot has even been programmed to blow off every 5th assignment, preferring instead to download clips from CollegeHumor.com and share them on face book. This trick and others like it have added a sense of realism that have even helped CommBot pass the Turing test. The Turing test is a language communication test of a computer’s ability to fool a human into believing that the computer is a real person.

One communications professor at St. Vincent who asked to remain anonymous had this to say after failing to identify CommBot as a robot. “It’s very tricky, you know, because when I say something that requires nuance or subtlety to comprehend, it just responds ‘yeah, whatever…’. My students give me that answer all the time, so it was very realistic for a communications major.”

Still don’t believe CommBot can compete with human communications majors? After one semester, CommBot has a comm-perfect 2.4 GPA and hasn’t missed an APB sponsored dance yet. The biggest design challenge for CommBot? “Right now we can’t make CommBot good enough at playing Madden. He’s playing at a philosophy major’s skill level at best, and that’s just not convincing anybody.”

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Dan Rubino is currently a senior physics major at St. Vincent College. Dan is a "professional" blogger with the St. Vincent College Admissions Department.
Tell your college-bound high school students to check out Dan's BLOG

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