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Because Hamiltonians Talk to Robots: Tom Williams ’11


Part computer scientist, part cognitive scientist, Tom Williams ’11 uses insights from cognitive psychology to design and enable language-based interaction between humans and robots.

That’s interaction as in a productive conversation.

Williams is assistant professor of computer science at the Colorado School of Mines, where he directs the Interactive Robotics Research Lab. His focus is cognitive systems, which incorporate artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. He recently received a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation, the organization’s highest award for junior faculty. It comes with a $550,000 grant that Williams will use to develop working memory potential for robots that are capable of language.

His goal is to create a system that can model the information it thinks will be important in achieving goals with its human partner. Picture a robot that remembers what it did and then relies on that information to communicate in a way that is easily understandable.

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Many scientists in artificial intelligence focus on developing statistical learning techniques that enable automatic decision-making for specific tasks. In cognitive systems, Williams focuses on a higher-level goal of creating intelligent robots that are able to think and act in a general, human-like way.

“Philosophically, the argument would be that the best way to understand the human mind would be to take the theories we learned from psychological experiments and try to actually implement them into comprehensive software systems and see how well those theories actually work when you try to program them out,” Williams says.

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