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NMSU researcher helps computers anticipate human reactions

As a child growing up in Vietnam and reading the futuristic novels of Jules Verne, New Mexico State University doctoral student Khoi Nguyen, never imagined his research could eventually push the envelope on artificial intelligence.


Mug of student in jeans and T-shirt
Khoi Nguyen is working in NMSU's Knowledge Presentation Lab where he and other software engineers are creating new ways to optimize search algorithms and create planners to help computers make decisions more like humans. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

For the past five years Nguyen has been working in NMSU's Knowledge Presentation Lab where he and other software engineers are creating new ways to optimize search algorithms and create planners to help computers make decisions more like humans.

"We try to capture how people will react to a situation, and then we use that knowledge to include how the planner will react," Nguyen said. "We work that into the artificial intelligence of things like robots and video games."

A planner is a system that provides solutions to all possible situations. Using conformant-planning problems, the software will automatically know how to solve the task at hand with little information to go on. Search algorithms are routinely used with global positioning systems, natural language processing and Google Maps.

Currently, software engineers use action models, but with Nguyen's planner implemented on top of it, they could potentially save time and money. His planner is on the leading edge of research in this area.

"These types of problems, commonly referred to as conformant planning problems, are very complex, and Khoi has devised solutions that are orders of magnitude faster than what was previously present in the literature," said Enrico Pontelli, head of NMSU's computer science department.

Planners, like the one Nguyen is developing, are also used to optimize the waiting times of the multiple elevators found in skyscrapers.

"In big buildings, hundreds of persons can call the elevator at the same time," Nguyen said. "So when the planner is utilized it can reduce the wait time from three minutes to 30 seconds."

Nguyen presented his research June 11-16 at the International Conference on Automated Planning and Scheduling in Freiburg, Germany. He also attended the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Aug. 7-11 in San Francisco.

Recently, Nguyen discovered a weakness in some search algorithms that surprised him. He said the algorithms were very long and very old.

"The search algorithm did not utilize the information as much as it could," Nguyen said.

Nguyen, whose father is a mathematician and whose mother is a novelist, earned a bachelor's in information technology from the University of Science - Ho Chi Minh City. He applied to the doctoral program at NMSU after reading about the artificial intelligence research under way at the Knowledge Presentation Lab.

Working with Nguyen on the planner research and two other projects is an international team of faculty and students. The group consists of his adviser, Tran Cao Son, a professor in the computer science department from Vietnam; Pontelli; Ferdinando Fioretto, a graduate student from Italy who recently earned a master's at NMSU; Vien Tran, a doctoral student from Vietnam; and Trung Le, a Vietnamese graduate student working on his master's.

Nguyen, whose native language is Vietnamese, speaks English fluently, but admitted he needs more practice with pronunciation. He has also studied Japanese and would like to learn Chinese in the future.

"It's never too late to study something," Nguyen said. "In Vietnam, after you finish your education then you go to work. Here, you can finish your education and then you can study more."

When Nguyen earns his doctorate in May 2012, he plans to continue his work in research labs or apply his research to the social network industry.