Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Systems Integration: the core of the PORPOISE curriculum

The core idea of the  PORPOISE Robotics curriculum  is creating multiple low thresh-hold high ceiling approaches to help students understand and gain facility with  what is known as "systems integration".

At the end of the day, when you really think about it, what we are trying to do as STEM educators is really less about teaching "programming" or how to "make robots" per se (though those are, of course,  the super-fun and important vehicles we use for stimulating and nurturing cognitive growth toward systems integration acumen) and even less about finding cool ways to help students master math and science.  What we are trying to do really is  help our citizenry to  truly understand how to problem solve  through "making things talk" and making things work.

Systems Integration.

Our goals as a society, and hence the primary goals of this  program, are  really rather more about "object oriented hardware construction" and "object oriented software programming" and the long hard road we tread as we strive to learn ways to improve communication between systems... technological systems sure, but not only those...   systems integration also involves good cross-talk between people, and communities, and nations, and ecological and industrial systems.

 In systems integration "individual hardware, software and wetware components are
made interoperable with each other and other components, such as common sense knowledgebases, in order to create larger, broader and more capable A.I. systems, vehicular systems and sensory input and
actuator capable platforms" (so sayeth the venerable Wiki, with my own additions...).

Most systems in use today already  involve some sort of integrated technologies, wikipedia informs us, " however, in recent years there has been an increasing discussion on the importance of systems integration as a field in its own right... Proponents of this approach are researchers such as Marvin Minsky, Aaron Sloman, Deb Roy, Kristinn R. Thórisson and Michael A. Arbib. A reason for the recent attention A.I. integration is attracting is that there have already been created a number of (relatively) simple A.I. systems for specific problem domains (such as computer vision, speech synthesis, etc.), and that integrating what's already available is a more logical approach to broader A.I. than building monolithic systems from scratch."

PORPOISE seeks to follow this model and introduce the students to and get them "mission ready" for this emerging and powerful field in engineering.  By focusing on "integrating what's already available",
piggybacking on the Sea Perch model and extending out to enhanced capability through common platform agnositic, open-architecture and open source  sensors, actuators, AI and programming software, surface
vehicles constructed from the same readily available materials, and a plethora and plurality of possible  off-the shelf microcontrollers, motor-shields and motors, servos, cameras, circuit boards, the
PORPOISE curriculum uses stakeholder (student, parent and teacher) involvement, experience and creativity to  evaluate and suggests "best-practice" pathways for integrating these systems without building "monolithic systems from scratch".

Graduates of the program will come away with a nuanced understanding of applied problem-solving that favors flexible approaches to "making things work together". Our methodology is based on  The
Constructionist design methodology (CDM, or 'Constructionist A.I.') which  is "a formal methodology proposed in the year 2004, for use in the development of cognitive robotics, communicative humanoids and
broad AI systems. The creation of such systems requires integration of a large number of functionalities that must be carefully coordinated to achieve coherent system behavior."

The free software movement and the open architecture movements have already made powerful tools "available for public exploit...  The next natural step is to merge these individual software components into
coherent, intelligent systems of a broader nature. As a multitude of components (that often serve the same purpose) have already been created by the community, the most accessible way of integration is
giving each of these components an easy way to communicate with each other. By doing so, each component by itself becomes a module which can then be tried in various settings and configurations of larger architectures."

By focusing on systems integration, the PORPOISE curriculum, making use of the numerous on-line communities of tinkerers and inventors and engineers, and the ever-evolving sets of software and hardware tools coming down the pike and on-line,  will never go out of date, but can always adapt to this dynamic and expanding field where the obsolescence of certain platforms and modules is inevitable, but where
we never want to see people feel their job prospects will dim as technology changes.

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