University of Vermont

Vermont Advanced Computing Core

On Reddit, Ask Professor Josh Bongard Anything about Robots

This real-world robot was designed online — by 209 people. It's part of a research effort by UVM computer scientists showing that collective human creativity combined with algorithmic power can yield results more powerful than any one person or machine alone. (Video: Josh Bongard)

Got 'bot questions? Robotics expert and University of Vermont professor of computer science Josh Bongard may have answers. He and his graduate student, Mark Wagy, were on the hugely popular online site Reddit on Friday November 6, fielding questions from around the world on the topic: crowdsourcing robot design.

“We’re interested in how people and computers can work together to create complex technology, like robots,” Josh Bongard says. And he and Wagy have a paper just published in the journal PLOS ONE in which they demonstrate that teams of people can actually design better robots than teams of computers — “if the humans work together,” he notes.

Part of the Reddit “AMA” effort (for “ask me anything”) and hosted by the Reddit New Journal of Science, this Q&A event drew many participants: the Reddit science page pulls in some three million unique viewers each month.

At the heart of the online discussion was “The DotBot,” a robot collectively designed by 209 Reddit users — so-called Redditors — as part of Bongard and Wagy’s research effort. Here is a summary video of this work. Or: try it here.

Since the two UVM computer scientists completed their PLOS study, “we have also discovered that a combined team can do even better: intuitions from the crowd can be boiled down into models that then guide computers," Bongard notes, “allowing them to design more robots than people on their own could ever do."