Students in Santa Monica College’s (SMC) newly launched robotics and artificial intelligence program will tell you they are having a blast building and programming robots and creating animated “chatbots.”

The fun they are having belies the seriousness of their purpose: being part of a technological wave that is impacting the world from factories to homes to shopping malls to outer space.

“SMC is on the leading edge among community colleges in training students in this exciting and dynamic field of robotics and artificial intelligence,” said Gina Jerry, chair of the Computer Science and Information Systems Department.

“We know of no other community college in the state that offers this program.”

In addition, the program has received a $385,000 grant from the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corporation, with funding from NASA.

The grant is awarded only to colleges that serve historically underrepresented minorities.

SMC qualifies as a Hispanic-serving institution because more than 25 percent of its enrollment is Hispanic.

SMC launched the robotics program in spring 2005 with an introductory robotics course.

The program is being rolled out in phases, with an expert systems and chatbot course offered in fall 2005 and an embedded systems class beginning in fall 2006.

Other courses in the pipeline include industrial robots and technology project management.

Students can earn a certificate in the field after two years of training.

In the robotics courses, students learn to build and program mobile robots that interact with changing environments.

Hardware includes computers and other controllers, motors, arms, grippers, sensors, cameras, and more.

The robots recognize objects and speech, talk back, and navigate around cluttered rooms.

Robotics professor Harold Rogler said robots have far-reaching effects in society.

“Many mobile robots work today unseen except by only a few people,” Rogler said.

“These robots inspect sewers, water pipes, oil pipelines, and air conditioning ducts. They have roved about our moon and Mars and have photographed and probed Saturn and other planets and their moons such as Titan.

“They explore the oceans, map sunken ships and roam for 30 days at a stretch off our Continental Shelves.”

His list goes on to include robots that look for leaks in nuclear waste and toxic material containers, robots that can help take care of housebound patients by performing such tasks as giving medicine, and robots that entertain, whether as dinosaurs at Disneyland or man-made sharks in movies.

In the expert systems and chatbot course, students learn about artificial intelligence and how to program computers to be “virtual humans.”

Professor Ken Geddes, who teaches the course, said the chatbots could be used for a wide variety of purposes.

For example, a computer with a chatbox could be set up in a shopping mall or building of any kind, and a user could ask the chatbox questions like, “Where is the bathroom?”

Embedded systems are a segment of the worldwide microprocessor and microcontroller industry.

Professor Abbas Dehkhoda, who will teach the course this fall, said embedded systems are found everywhere and developments in the field can be endless.

For example, in the future a person in a supermarket will be able to connect to a home refrigerator to find out what food it contains via a credit card.

Information, (310) 434-4209 or www.smc.edu

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