January 25, 2006 —
Milind Tambe and class co-designer Emma Bowring, with some
exercise materiels "Science fiction is the spice," says Tambe.
Students in a new class offered by
the USC Viterbi School of Engineering will be writing computer code
for Isaac Asimov's disobedient robot Speedy, and for the sinister
many-bodied Star Trek menace, the Borg.
Milind Tambe, an associate professor of computer science, will
be using science fiction as problem sets in a class on artificial
intelligence for undergraduate programmers beginning in the fall,
"Computer science is catching up with the ideas in these
stories," says Tambe. "We are using science fiction as the spice for
the main dish of teaching an important new area of our
While a number of universities use science fiction to introduce
concepts in physics and other fields, Tambe believes his course is
the first of its kind in computer science.
Tambe and third-year PhD candidate Emma Bowring worked together
designing the class, CS 499, "Intelligent Agents and
ScienceFiction." Bowring will be the teaching assistant for a class
that "she made very significant contributions in creating," said
The class will focus not on robots per se, but on their
"minds," what are called in the field of artificial intelligence
"agents." These are virtual robots, disembodied machine entities
that can create strategies to achieve ends, and even negotiate with
each other to cooperate while doing so.
"Science fiction provides three key benefits in this
course," said Tambe. "First, it is a great motivator and it provides
context, generating excitement about artificial intelligence topics
in general, and agents and multiagent systems in
"Second, science fiction also helps provide a
perspective on how far we have come in our research, as well as
current limitations, and future research challenges.
science fiction literature is a great vehicle for understanding the
impact on society if agent-based computing truly
Most of the texts will be standard scholarly
references in the field of AI. But the assignments will also include
science fiction films and tv shows, along with such famous stories
as Asimov's "Runaround" — the 1942 tale that introduced his famous
"Three Laws of Robotics."
In this story, set in 2015,
astronauts on the planet Mercury send a robot named Speedy on a
vital, but dangerous mission to bring back the element selenium.
Instead of obeying, Speedy starts running in a circle around his
destination. The reason, the humans discover, is the robot's
calculation of required behavior conforming to the second law of
robotic,: "A robot must obey orders given by a human," is in
delicate equilibrium with its necessity to conform to the third law:
"A robot must protect its own existence."
The humans manage tobreak the cycle by convincing Speedy
that they are in mortal danger, which brings into play the
top-priority first law: "A robot may not injure a human being or,
through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."
syllabus asks students to analyze Speedy's thinking with what is
called in "belief-desire-intention" or "BDI" logic, which
formularizes persistent agent goals, with questions like "(a)
Explain in BDI logic the commitment formed to save humans. (b) Is
this commitment only invoked when a human is in danger or is it
present under all circumstances?"
In more traditional
academic course syllabus language, the course will cover
"introduction to agents, elementary decision theory and reasoning
under uncertainty, elementary game theory (includes Nash equilibria
and prisoner's dilemma), teamwork and belief-desire-intention
logics, emotions in agents."
Other science fiction source
materials that will be discussed — and coded — by the class include
Star Trek episodes on the alien distributed intelligence (one mind
in many bodies) called the Borg; and on the emergence of emotions in
Lt. Commander Data.
The USC Viterbi School and its
Information Sciences Institute are leading centers of research in
agents and artificial intelligence, and many of the non-science
fiction texts the class will read are original papers by USC
researchers including Stacy Marsella, David Pynadath, Jonathan
Gratch, Gal Kaminka, and Tambe himself.
Tambe also hopes that
some authors of science fiction sources to be analyzed and coded
will visit the class.
"This will be a rigorous class in state
of the art computer science," said Tambe, "but it will be one that I
think will challenge students in an interesting way, one that
they'll enjoy taking. I know I will enjoy teaching