In Germany, student projects explore and advance AI-human interactions

By and Aisha Walcott | 2 minute read | August 25, 2020

student programmer working

In recent years, artificial intelligence has made enormous strides. AI is powering self-driving cars, furthering medical research, improving travel, facilitating logistics, mining big data—it’s assisting across every industry. Innovations in cognitive computing, machine learning, neural-symbolic reasoning and robotics will produce even more services, tools and support systems that can improve our daily lives.

To continue making AI progress, however, significant issues must be resolved. At University of Osnabrück and University of Konstanz, we are preparing young academics to meet these challenges using commercial AI technology provided by the IBM Academic Initiative and others.

A student journey with AI and robotics

Since 2016, the University of Osnabrück Institute of Cognitive Science has offered study projects that combine AI technologies in an interdisciplinary way. More than 100 students participated in projects like predicting flu epidemics from Twitter data, creating a digital tutor for neurobiology and enhancing the Pepper humanoid robot.

Cognitive robotics at the university involves the study of human-computer interactions and the integration of multiple services in a complex AI ecosystem. One project was programming Pepper to serve as a waiter at a cocktail party—able to talk to guests, take their drink orders, relay them to the bartender and return with the drinks.

Competencies to master include spatial navigation, robot vision, conversational abilities, contextual memory and the ability to recognize human speech. These test students on a number of levels.

Consider, for example, developing speech capabilities. Students must create the overall conversational structure for the party; develop a drink menu and an easy way to address it; make the robot sound friendly and human; create a database for the contextual memory; and integrate their work with other groups.

The students used IBM Watson Assistant and the Python language to build the conversational structure. They created the drink menu in Java, deployed Redis for the in-memory database and tapped the Robot Operating System (ROS) for technology integration. After a semester, Pepper was ready to serve.

An exploration of AI in daily life

In another project, students from the University of Konstanz, HTWG Konstanz – University of Applied Sciences, and the Trossingen University of Music created an award-winning exhibit that explored the link between AI and everyday life. More than 60 students from architecture, history, communications and computer science collaborated on an interactive, multimedia tour to illuminate the interactions between AI and people.

Called “A link to AI,” the exhibit spanned four floors in a model of computer architecture, each floor representing one aspect of AI. Some 3,000 people attended over the two-month duration.

The exhibit explored AI through its representation in pop culture; historical context and current models of AI-human interaction; and AI in politics, the workplace, mobility, art and security along with related social issues.

It also gave visitors the chance to reflect on their experiences through ASKI, an interactive AI avatar. Developed and trained by the students using Watson Assistant, ASKI could understand visitors’ questions, answer in natural language and enquire about their impressions of the tour.

Such projects bridge the gaps between cognitive science, AI technology and the humanities. They are helping students master issues that in the next decades will be of significant scientific, technological and social relevance—and our universities are proud to be part of this effort.