Russell Toris is intrigued by robotics
Written by Justin Reynolds
Tuesday, 06 April 2010
Not everybody goes to college and studies robotics.
Russell Toris, left, a Wiltonian who is a junior at Dickinson College, happens to be someone who does.
Mr. Toris, who graduated from Wilton High School in 2007, is a computer-science major at the Pennsylvania school. He said his interest in robotics sort of began back in elementary school.
“I started working with computers from a pretty young age. Even as early as elementary school, I was always working on my own ‘trial-by-error’ system (which I have to say always made my parents a bit nervous),” Mr. Toris told The Bulletin. “The more I fooled around with computers, the more comfortable I began to feel and the less I would have the occasional ‘oops!’ moment.”
As to working with robotics, Mr. Toris has had limited experience.
“I never really had any experience in the field prior to my time at Dickinson,” Mr. Toris said. “To be honest, I never really put a lot of effort into the idea until my sophomore year of college where I took an Artificial Life course with my adviser and professor, Grant Braught.”
But in that short period of time, Mr. Toris has both learned and accomplished a great deal.
“Dickinson definitely does a great job teaching the basic concepts and ideas of coding within the early classes of the department, and dives deeper into software design with every class,” he said. “I feel I have a confident attitude towards programming and find the real challenge to be the problem solving behind the software, rather than the coding itself.”
After taking the Artificial Life class, Mr. Toris decided to spend his summer volunteering with Prof. Braught in Dickinson’s computer-science department. Mr. Toris spent his time writing software for dLife, a “software package written in Java,” in development by Prof. Braught over the course of a few years now, whose basic concept “is a package which offers tools for research and development in the field of artificial intelligence, artificial life and robotics,” he said.
Prof. Braught plans to release dLife after his sabbatical work next year, Mr. Toris said.
Mr. Toris said over the summer he created server software for a new robot the department had obtained that allowed it to be controlled via a wireless network.
“I then developed the software packages into dLife, which allowed dLife to control the robot using its software controllers,” he said.
“At the end of my time this summer, Prof. Braught and I applied for a Dana Research Grant to help fund my current work right now, which is developing a bridge between dLife system and the open-source Player/Stage robotics simulation system,” he said. “I have come extremely close to finishing this project after nearly two semesters of work.”
Mr. Toris said he was recently invited to give a poster presentation at the New England Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges in Hartford later this month. He will talk about his current project.
But the work isn’t done just yet.
“Prof. Braught and I were recently awarded a research grant for this summer in which we will be able to fully test the new dLife/Player integration,” Mr. Toris said. “I am planning on completing an honors thesis next year by continuing the research done this summer.”
Mr. Toris said often times, people mistake work he does with how robotics are portrayed in popular culture — something he wished to clarify.
“Many people hear ‘robotics’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ and immediately think of the Mars Rover and Will Smith running around in I, Robot,” he said. “While these ideas are awesome in their own sense, I don’t actually do what many people think. I am more interested in the ideas of machine learning, evolution and adaptation within computers. I see the robots as simply a tool into learning just what computers are capable of. Many of the same ideas can be applied to weather prediction, diagnostic medicine, or learning about the human genome.”
Mr. Toris said he hopes to continue working within the field of artificial life post-graduation, but said he will keep his mind open.
“Graduate school is definitely in my scope at the moment if the right opportunities present themselves,” he said.