Professor of Computer Science Michael Littman tells us how to tell machines what to do


Michael Littman, a CS professor at Brown, believes that machines should be able to get better at what they do. For example, if you adjust a thermostat, it should recognize that it was at the wrong temperature and be like Damn, I messed up! I’ll do better next time.

Littman gave a talk on user-friendly programmable devices at yesterday’s Science Underground, a science café that hosts informal scientific lectures through Brown’s Science Center, The Triple Helix, and Sigma Xi. He is currently teaching an introductory course that uses a hands-on approach to problem solving: “CSCI0080: A First Byte of Computer Science.” (Get it? Byte, bite? 8, ate? Computer scientists can be punny, too.) He also leads the Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative, which aims to integrate robots into daily life in a beneficial and practical way. Littman’s research centers on artificial intelligence and machine learning, and he put these ideas into non-CS-concentrator terms at yesterday’s talk.

Computer science can seem out of reach, and Littman acknowledges that learning to program well is at least as difficult as learning to write English well. Traditional programming languages “look like gobbledygook” to a non-programmer. He wants to make devices more easily programmable, allowing people to customize and simplify daily tasks. Basically, he wants to shove computers into household objects to make them “taskable.” Continue Reading