Becoming one of the world’s largest industrial robot companies takes time and a lot of dedication. Work, work, work. No time for play. And having got to the top, the most annoying thing for a company, like Kuka, must be to see a startup company, like DeepMind, which has yet to deliver a single commercial product, make worldwide headlines for building an artificially intelligent computer that plays an ancient Chinese board game no one understands.
So what does Kuka do to make its own headlines? Of course: find another obscure board game no one understands and teach one of its robots how to play that, and get students at a local university to do all the programming.
The board game in question is Settlers of Catan. While at least spome people had heard of Go, Settlers of Catan sounds like an old cowboy movie that no one saw because it was terrible.
Nonetheless, Professor Dr Klaus Volbert, professor of computer science in Regensburg University of Applied Sciences, decided Settlers of Catan would be a good way to teach his students about the intricacies of a board game none of them have ever played before and are never likely to play again.
But Prof Volbert and Kuka clearly believe in the educational value if not the sheer media pulling power of “the well-known board game Settlers of Catan”. At least the students appreciate it, one of them deciding the project was “cool”.
Maybe we should learn to play more board games.
As part of their robotics class, students at Regensburg did some basic research in software engineering, resulting in the board game project – a project that helped student Markus Webert finish his bachelor’s degree in computer science.
His supervisor is, of course, the reasonably well-known Prof Volbert.
“Before I started my bachelor’s degree I thought, ‘Programming, I don’t like that much’, but now I’m really into it,” says Webert while standing in front of the robot cell with the Kuka Agilus.
“When I started to get into programming, a professor suggested I take part in this really cool project to program an AI that could play Settlers of Catan.
“We started with an online game platform that required human players, and we used that platform to collect data from them. The goal was to use that data for stuff like machine learning later on so we could teach our program how to play.”
Currently the robotics course at Regensburg counts 40 students.
Professor Dr Martin Weiss is the course instructor and professor at the Faculty of Mathematics and Science. He has an industrial background. Within his lessons practice plays an important part.
“I teach courses where we use robots as a practical example to illustrate what very theoretical things in Mathematics and Computer Science might mean in the real world,” says Prof Weiss.
“We don’t simply do things on paper or write programs, but with the computer and robot I can show that an equation has several solutions and the robot can move to the same position but use many different axis configurations to get there.
“Working with the robot you see pieces moving and you see the robot doing some interesting things, so the students really like the robot,” says Weiss.
“They like it because they can put their ideas in very practical things. Sometimes students are afraid of mathematics, but the problems can be separated in such a way that one group works on the mathematics, the other works on programming and others work on the engineering, so I think the students get the point that this is something that requires teamwork, and that this is job where they might have a great future ahead.”
The next step will be to install a camera to the Kuka Agilus so that future students can then develop vision systems that allow the robot to pick up randomly oriented pieces.
For now, the Kuka small robot will keep on placing buildings on the screen, building up settlements, optimizing streets and – of course – “moving the robber”. Clearly a familiar phrase to the millions of people who know and play Settlers of Catan.