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Computer science research team receives international recognition in planning problem

A team of two New Mexico State University computer science doctorate students and two professors received a superior rating in the International Conference of Automated Planning and Scheduling (ICAPS) for the creation of a computer system to augment artificial intelligence research to solve more problems.

New Mexico State University computer science doctorate students Khoi Nguyen and Vien Tran observe associate professor of computer science Son Tran and professor of computer science Enrico Pontelli while they work on the computer. The group recently received recognition for a prestigious international computer science competition. (NMSU Photo by Robert Yee)

Students Vien Tran and Khoi Nguyen and NMSU professor of computer science Enrico Pontelli and associate professor of computer science Son Cao Tran worked diligently on a problem since last spring semester and recently received news of the results announced at the ICAPS bi-annual conference held in Australia earlier this month. The primary goal of ICAPS is to further the field of automated planning and scheduling by promoting the involvement of young scientists in the field of computer sciences, according to the conference website.

Planning problems such as the one the teams worked on are "notoriously hard with an infinite sequence of actions," and to be recognized for finding a working solution to it could be compared to receiving a medal in the Olympics, Pontelli said.

"We strongly believed that our system has novel features and adopts new principles that would put it ahead of what other researchers have been working on. The competition proved we were right," Pontelli said.

The team participated in one of the most challenging tracks (or disciplines) by developing a planning system that was rated by judges as "superior," allowing for the system to solve more complex problems than other systems in the competition.

ICAPS encourages further research that will address the most challenging aspects of the field and how research is measuring up against it. This includes real-world problems that might arise in military science, collecting samples in a biology or chemistry lab or even finding the information needed for robots to collect and analyze samples from other planets. Over twenty-five years of research has been put into artificial intelligence planning problems, and researchers continue to attempt to construct a general system that can receive instructions - what actions need to be taken and the desired outcome - in order to determine the result.

"We are headed in the right direction with our research. We have solved some very challenging problems, and the results are showing," Tran said.

The team took first place in one of three categories known as the non-observable and non-deterministic track, meaning all components of the problem were not necessarily known. For example, Tran likened the problem to one that a UPS driver might have to use when making deliveries.

For instance, if a driver had to deliver 10 boxes but was only told the delivery destinations of those boxes and not where they were located, then the driver would have to solve the problem of finding the boxes and delivering them to the different UPS offices around town, Tran said. This is one example of a situation teams attempt to write programs and create systems for in an ICAPS competition.

In other areas of study a problem like this one could be applied to include manufacturing, space systems, software engineering, robotics, education and entertainment. Solving a problem like this could also assist a computer scientist in homeland security efforts, for example, programming a robot to potentially locate and disarm a bomb inside a building.

The students involved in this project saw their hard work pay off. "Sometimes you don't know what to do, but if you work long enough with something, it will click eventually. You have to be persistent," Nguyen said. "The hard work is worth it. My professors were right."

Colleague and fellow doctorate student Vien Tran agreed whole-heartedly expressing his excitement. "I'm happy and satisfied to get something after the hard work we put in," he said.

The team will be invited to write a paper presenting their findings for a computer science journal. "We're building a good reputation for our research group...its something that is very important for us," Pontelli said.