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Joshua de Leeuw, Vassar alumnus and research associate, wins worldwide programming competition sponsored by Microsoft and Kia Motors.

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY-Kia Motors and Microsoft have just announced that Joshua de Leeuw of Vassar's Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory was awarded second prize in the worldwide programming competition: RoboChamps KIA Motors Urban Challenge. 

"I tried to find the simplest solution to a complex problem," said de Leeuw about his winning idea. Known as 'The Deliverator,' de Leeuw received a $10,000 cash prize for his success at programming a simulated robot car, which could drive autonomously in a 3-D virtual city. A 2008 graduate of Vassar with a bachelor's degree in Cognitive Science, de Leeuw works in Vassar's Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory as a faculty research associate, focusing on projects that include developing a robot modeled after a fish.

"Basically, we take an ‘infant' robot, and we give it nothing but a way to learn. We want the robot to figure out how to move around on its own without bumping into things. So we let it loose to explore, and we watch it learn," said De Leeuw.

At Vassar, De Leeuw competed in robot competitions during his sophomore and junior years and participated in three Undergraduate Research Summer Institutes on robotics. Vassar was the world's first institution to offer an undergraduate degree in Cognitive Science, which the college created in 1982.

The RoboChamps competition, launched by Microsoft on April 25, 2008, was a global tournament in which participants wrote robot programs using Microsoft's free Robotics Developer Studio software. De Leeuw's second prize was awarded in the KIA Motors Urban Challenge component that began on October 9 and ended on November 30, 2008. The prizes KIA provided were a car worth $15,000 (or cash equivalent) as first prize; $10,000 as second prize; and $5,000 as third prize. (


When did you begin programming robots?

I started getting interested in robots when I came to Vassar and took Perception and Action, a course that had a robotics component to it, in my sophomore year.

What are you working on now?

We are working on learning in robots. We're trying to figure out a procedure that doesn't tell the robot a lot about the world that its moving around in, but does give it a way to explore the world and discover what the world is like. What the robot does is detect what patterns of motion result in collisions-it's a form of reinforcement learning, kind of like trying to teach your dog a trick.

Is that the same idea you used for the Microsoft competition?

In the simulated city, the idea was to go from a starting point past a series of checkpoints and then park at the end. While I could have used something like the learning software we have been developing, I was able to build a program that made the car stay on the road by tracking the city's curbs.

How long did it take you to program the car?

It took me about two days. I think that the reason I found the solution was because of the way robotics courses are taught here, which is about looking for simple answers for what look like complex behaviors.

What do you think is the importance of your research?

I think there is a potential for good research to come out of this. Robots are going to play a bigger role in our society in the coming decades, and they help us find out about who we are and how we work. I like to walk that boundary between creating new technologies and studying human learning using robots.

Who has most influenced your work?

I have worked a lot with Ken Livingston* who taught my first cognitive science class and was my URSI** mentor. He taught me to be a good critical thinker, and to not accept what the common wisdom is but think outside the box and go with that. Even if you fail, that's OK-its part of the process. Our project didn't work for three years, but at the end it was worth it.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I'm planning to go to grad school, but after that I don't know. I might start a company and build robots, or I might teach at a university, keep doing research, and work with other people on my ideas.

*Ken Livingston is Professor of Psychology at Vassar.

**URSI is the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute, a collaborative student-and-faculty research program held annually at Vassar.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Friday, February 13, 2009