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SpelBots score with technology, education

Spelman College women reach goals with 4-legged robots

By Marsha Walton

SpelBots square off in Osaka, Japan.


Spelman College
Sony Corporation

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- For six young women from Spelman College in Georgia, a competition to teach robotic dogs how to play soccer has also taught them a lot about their own abilities to break down stereotypes.

The undergraduates and their digital dogs recently scored a lot of firsts in the RoboCup 2005 competition in Osaka, Japan.

The competitors became the first all-female team, and the first from a historically black college to compete in this global robotics challenge.

The meteoric rise of the "SpelBots" (short for Spelman Robotics) put to rest the notion that girls don't "do" science. The students say they remember being drawn to technology when they were very young.

"I created an interactive application for my little sister to learn her colors and letters when she was 3," said Karina Liles, from South Carolina. "It kind of made me want to do more, because she actually learned from it," she said.

The soccer games, officially known as the "Sony Four-Legged Robot League" are part of one of the biggest gatherings of robotic programmers, designers and hobbyists in the world. The SpelBots were among two dozen college teams whose Sony AIBO attackers, defenders, and goalies squared off in Osaka. During the competition, the dogs are on their own with the programs their "humans" have created. There are no remote controls; no second chances once the starting whistle has blown.

This year's champion, GermanTeam, was a collaborative effort that included students from four different German universities. Many of the teams in the finals have been competing for several years.

That depth of experience of the other schools made the SpelBots participation even more exciting, said their coach, computer science and robotics professor Andrew Williams. Williams helped create the team in his first year teaching at Spelman.

"It was amazing that we got a team ready for the U.S. Open [held in May at Georgia Institute of Technology ] as well as qualifying for the international open," said Williams. "All these students were full-time students and they had other extracurricular activities and other classes, and everything they were doing was on their spare time, at night and on the weekends," he said.

And the experience of traveling to the games in Japan was eye opening for many of the students.

"Sitting there at the welcome ceremony, it was bigger than I expected with the governor, the mayor coming in from different parts of the country, it's really exciting and a really good experience, I thought," said Shinese Noble of Long Island, New York.

While the SpelBots did not come away with a win in the international competition, Williams said they improved with each game.

"The team learned some valuable tactical and strategic knowledge about the RoboCup games," he said.

While humans, even as young as toddlers, take kicking and throwing a ball for granted, "teaching" a small robot to do those things is a complicated mix of computer programming, electronics, and of course, sports skills.

The dogs have cameras inside their heads to recognize colors: the orange ball, and the yellow and the blue of the goals.

And the competition is providing a learning experience that could have an impact on research and career possibilities for these young women.

"We can apply a lot of things to the dogs," said Brandy Kinlaw from North Carolina. "They are doing research now with prosthetic arms and legs, and by working with the dogs we understand how the joints move," she said.

"I can see myself in the future, using robotics and artificial intelligence to hopefully come up with something innovative in the medical field," said Ebony O'Neal from Barnesville, Georgia.

During some long and weary nights of programming, the all-female dynamic made for good teamwork.

"You always have that feeling that you always have somebody else by your side. You're never in it by yourself," said Ebony Smith, from Memphis, Tennessee.

"There's no blame, like if your code fails, it's not like, 'oh, you did it wrong, do it over,' it's just, it didn't work, let's try something else," Brandy Kinlaw said.

And the team's quick success with their cute and clever dogs brought them a lot of recognition on the Atlanta campus.

Aryen Moore-Alston said there was a definite "cool factor" in being a "nerd."

"They think we're like, rocket scientists, programming robots to play soccer. They're like, 'What???'" she said.

And with most people's knowledge of robotics being some combination of science fiction and memories of Rosey the Robot on "The Jetsons", some of the SpelBots classmates are eager to get the women to program robots for other tasks.

"They ask us, can you make a robot to do my homework? Can you make a robot that will wash dishes? Or do my chores?" laughed Ebony O'Neal.

Well, not yet.

But give these women just a few years.

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