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Building a whole robot — and a whole engineer

Engineering students to race their autonomous cars Friday at Old Main in Tempe.
Designing the entire car takes computer science students beyond software.
April 27, 2016

Inaugural ASU computer science course teaches students how to design an entire system with self-driving cars

On Friday morning, man and machine will find themselves both tested.

The challenge for the robotic car? Make your way — on your own, of course — from University Drive about 250 yards to the steps of Old Main, avoiding students, skateboards, bicycles and the fountain.

The challenge for the students? Build a robotic car that can do all that.

It’s the final step in a course offered for the first time this semester at Arizona State University.

Knowing how to write software isn’t enough any more, said Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering associate professor Aviral ShrivastavaShrivastava teaches in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. He heads the Compiler and Microarchitecture Labs..

Computer science engineers need to learn to design an entire system.

“Being a computer science department, what we used to do was teach the software aspect of robots,” Shrivastava said. “But now as these robotic systems become more complex, you cannot even develop the software without knowing the other aspects. You have to understand the relationships and connections between the mechanical components and the electrical components to be able to correctly write the software. That is what is changing.”

In the old days, writing software for machines was simple. For a washing machine, you want it to turn on, fill with water, agitate for 10 minutes, drain, spin for another 10 minutes, refill again, and so on. The software engineer didn’t have to know how to build a washing machine.

In a world where self-driving cars are poised to appear on a street near you, that has changed.

“Robotic systems are much more complex,” Shrivastava said. “Even though we are still just writing the software, we need to understand the electrical parts, the mechanical parts, to write good software. That’s why I changed this course to include all the components of the system, to give them an understanding of the whole thing.”

He calls it an “engineering course with a strong computer science aspect to it.”

They start with a car 2 feet long that runs up to 20 mph. Students get the chassis, battery, two motors, GPS, a laser rangefinder, a microprocessor, wires, motion sensors, and a breadboard to connect components.

“They are really, really building this completely from scratch,” Shrivastava said.

It’s a series of seven class projects culminating in an automatically navigating obstacle-avoiding race car.

“It is a self-driving car,” he said. “It’s not an easy project. They have been working night and day on this.” Out of 25 groups in the class, six didn’t make it.

At the Friday event, students will get a GPS coordinate destination. They’ll start from University Drive, driving south and stopping behind the fountain in front of Old Main on the Tempe campus, a distance of about 250 yards, carried along by the algorithm they have to write. It is, after all, a computer science class.

This is the type of engineering Google is looking for right now, with “end to end” skill sets. Robotics companies are the fastest-growing start-up category, Shrivastava said. “There are a lot of companies who want people like this,” he said.

“The students are very excited,” Shrivastava said. “After doing this course, students get the confidence and the ability to design relatively complex robotics systems on their own. ... That doesn’t happen if you study only part of the system.”

He hopes students from the whole spectrum of engineering disciplines enroll in Embedded Microprocessor Systems (CSE 325).

“I’m hoping students from computer science will also be interested in taking this course, students from mechanical engineering will be taking this course, electrical engineering students will be interested in taking this course, because they are all just learning their part of the robotic system, and they realize they won’t go far without learning the entire robotic system,” Shrivastava said.

The car race of the obstacle-avoiding, autonomous race cars will be at 9 a.m. April 29 on the lawns in front of Old Main.


Top photo: Students in computer systems engineering class Embedded Microprocessor Systems test their self-navigating cars in the first of four demonstrations. Photo by Mihir Bhatt/ASU

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The intersection of art and science

Bioartists create commentary on scientific fields.
April 27, 2016

ASU Center for Nanotechnology in Society researcher walks audience through the edgy world of bioart — art using living materials

Tiny wings seeded with pig cells. An ear seeming to grow out of a man’s arm. DNA “fingerprinting” that produces images of smiley faces and copyright symbols.

These are a few examples of the growing (often, quite literally) field of bioart, a form of art that uses and displays living materials.

These works are attention-grabbing, but they’re not done for any sort of gross-out factor or edginess for edginess’ sake. The point of bioart, according to Hannah Star Rogers, is to serve as a commentary on the promises of science.

Rogers, a postdoctoral researcher at Arizona State University’s Center for Nanotechnology in SocietyThe Center for Nanotechnology in Society is part of ASU's Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes., spoke Wednesday in Tempe at the last of the semester’s “EnLIGHTeNING Lunch” seminars, sponsored by the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

She performed research during two separate stintsRogers' time at SymbioticA was funded by both the National Science Foundation and the Society for Humanities. at SymbioticA, a wet research lab for artists at the University of Western Australia, and has written extensively about bioart. Rogers — a poet whose work and literary reviews have appeared in a number of publications — explained the scientific inspiration and intended critique to a room full of ASU faculty and students.

Those pig wings? They were created by the Tissue Culture & Art Project in 2001. They consist of pig cells grown on 3-D-printed or carved wings. This was meant as a critique of what they artists saw as the over-promising of biotechnology as the Human Genome ProjectThe Human Genome Project was an international effort to sequence the entire DNA of human beings. was nearing completion — so-called “geno-hype.”

“The artists answered that hype with hype of their own, that pigs would one day fly, and answered their own call with a petri-dish-size set of wings,” Rogers said.

The DNA “fingerprinting” of smiley faces was part of Paul Vanouse’s 2009 project titled “Latent Figure Protocol.” The artist used DNA samples to create representational images. His aim was to show that contrary to the view held by many, DNA is not a fingerprint. Many see DNA — often used in the legal system as evidence of innocence or guilt — as a unique identifier, but Vanouse argues that the techniques used to produce the evidence can be affected by the various enzymes used at any given lab.

Vanouse’s goal, Rogers said, is to draw attention to issues of scientific expertise and biotechnology and “ask people to render judgment on these issues, rather than leaving them in ‘expert hands.’ As Vanouse puts it, everyone is an amateur.”

And what about the ear growing out of the arm? That was by performing artist Stelarc, who had a cell-cultivated ear surgically attached to his left arm in 2007. A later surgery to install a microphone — so he could “hear” with it — led to a massive infection, and he nearly lost his arm, Rogers said.

Not surprisingly, that kind of bioart, focusing on body modification, has fallen out of favor.

Second-generation bioartists are mainly interested in climate change and ecology, Rogers said, and the field is moving toward critiques in those areas.

Originally a poet, she was drawn into botany and biology and became intrigued by how much more power environmental science seemed to have than poetry. She has focused her research on the intersection of art and science.

“I’m interested in the categories of art and science because … the categories themselves have power. How objects and people are read, who gets to participate, and how resources are allocated,” said Rogers, who is also the director of research for this Friday’s Emerge: The Future of Sport 2040 festival on ASU’s Tempe campus.

She pointed out the clear differential in how society values the arts and how it values the sciences.

“A quick look at the federal budget will tell you something about the power differential when you’re trying to get artists and scientists to collaborate, and the kind of minimum amounts of money handed out by NEA vs. NSF or NIH.”

Combining art and science can lead to edgy creations that challenge perceptions, and numerous issues of ethics and responsibility.

“We feel very different when it’s a scientist using an animal versus a cook using an animal versus an artist using an animal,” Rogers said.

She noted that there are a number of health and safety considerations with such installations, and now galleries get a pre-education on the technical aspects of curating exhibits with living tissue.

One downside of the innate edginess of an image of, say, a tiny jacket grown out of living cells, is that the image can be circulated widely, but the original critique, the original statement it was making, gets lost along the way.

The artists, however, do not shy away from the uproar that their work often creates.

“The artists want those protests,” Rogers said. It stirs a conversation that benefits art, science and society alike.

Penny Walker

Director , Media Relations and Strategic Communications