Highcliff student competed in Tokyo as part of robotic programming team
Kyleigh Johnston, 11, a sixth-grader from Highcliff Elementary School in Ross, recently teamed with sixth-grader Tomi Li, 12, of Shadyside, and eighth-grader Emily Li, 13, of Mt. Lebanon, to compete in the 2018 World Robot Summit, an international robot competition and expo for youth on Oct. 17-19 in Tokyo, Japan.
As one of 134 participating teams from the US, Europe and Asia, they entered the competition in the junior category, where their task was to program a robot called Pepper.
Pepper, a 4-foot-tall semi-humanoid robot developed in Japan in 2014, is designed with the ability to read emotions. Its head has four microphones, two high-definition cameras (in the mouth and forehead), and a 3-D depth sensor (behind the eyes). There is a gyroscope in the torso and touch sensors in the head and hands. The mobile base has two sonars, six lasers, three bumper sensors, and a gyroscope. It was created to communicate with humans through its voice, touch, and the expression of its emotions. Pepper currently is being used as a receptionist at several offices in the UK and is able to identify visitors with the use of facial recognition and chat to prospective clients. It also has been used in banks, restaurants, medical facilities, and private homes in Japan. It is available as a research and educational robot for schools, colleges, and universities to teach programming and conduct research into human-robot interactions.
At the World Robot Summit, students in grades 6-12 engaged in four full days of workshops and 10 days of programming and competition. Teams were given various tasks, such as programming Pepper to conduct infrastructure inspection, perform a disaster response, or accomplish household chores.
Johnston’s team programmed Pepper to assist a human teacher in the classroom.
Their challenge was to use advanced technologies and encompass the full skill set of robot development to program Pepper to hold a short conversation; recognize clothing, facial expressions and a raised hand; identify three different letters and turn them into a word; and navigate a room to follow a human and find a randomly-placed object.
“We were able to accomplish three of the four tasks,” Johnston said.
“Pepper detected one of our team members and went over and talked to them, introduced them to a new friend, and played ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors.’ Pepper detected when people wanted to take a break or were tired, based on their facial expressions. Then, Pepper suggested to the teacher that morale was low and kids needed a break,” she explained.
Johnston built her foundation in robotics from participating on the Girls of Steel FIRST LEGO League (FLL), a competitive programming and robotics youth program. Her team meets at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). She has participated for two years.
Tomi Li’s mother, Karen (Lujie) Chen, learned about the opportunity to compete in the World Robot Summit earlier this year and assembled the team last spring.
She asked the trio to read books about artificial intelligence and computer programming, taught them how to program using Python (a high-level, general-purpose programming language), and instructed them on the many aspects of the programming tools that would be used in the competition.
“The biggest highlight of the trip was the authentic experience of working through the frustrations of problem-solving with a real robot platform they don’t have much experience with. They had to be resilient, persistent, and optimistic in order to get through,” said Chen, a PhD student in information systems at CMU.
The biggest challenge was getting Pepper to function.
“Half the robots wouldn’t work. We went through 20 or 30 Peppers before we found one we could use. The slightest variations in environmental conditions between the testing and judging areas would mess up the robot. The lighting changes would affect the robots’ ability to recognize things,” said Johnston’s stepfather, Dan Moschak, a web designer who helped Chen mentor the team.
“But being able to see the kids on an international stage, and watching them take something from conception to implementation was surreal,” he added.
While Johnston’s team did not win any of the prizes totaling $875,000, the experience was priceless.
“From a parent’s point of view, they really grew. The first day of competition saw a lot of struggles. Programs were not very successful. But by the end, they had more confidence and the programs started coming together,” said Johnston’s mother, Kate Johnston-Moschak, 32. “The fact that Kyleigh got to go experience this has inspired her to do great things and pursue her dreams and interests.”
“Plus, we had two days to go sightseeing,” Johnston said. “We got to see the Tokyo Samurai Museum and eat at the Pokemon Cafe.”
“I got to try sushi and enjoy milk tea,” Tomi added.
Laurie Rees is a Tribune-Review contributor.