The robot guy
By Scott Harrup
Andrew Williams has been fascinated with computers since
junior high school and the arrival of video games.
“I was curious not only how to play the games, but how they
are created,” he remembers.
In college he developed an interest in AI, or artificial
intelligence. As the nascent video game and personal computer industries became
global phenomena, Williams kept honing his skills. By the time he was a Ph.D.
candidate, he was studying software and robotic agents that could interact with
each other as a team to accomplish tasks.
Arriving at that focus called into play Williams’ spiritual
identity as much as his academic persona. Growing up, he had listened to his
dad’s stories of African-American role models, and George Washington Carver was
near the top of that list. The more Williams learned about Carver, the more he
was inspired by the scientist’s example of faith.
“He’d go out to a field or garden, acknowledge God as
Creator of everything, and then ask God to show him something about the sweet
potato or the peanut,” Williams says. “I realized if God created everything and
has infinite knowledge, I would only need a speck of His knowledge to come up
with thousands of Ph.D.s.”
The Internet was growing rapidly. Even in a pre-Google era,
search engines were coming into wider use. Williams’ idea — God’s idea,
he would insist — was to develop intelligent software agents that would
work behind the scenes as human users were bookmarking different Web sites into
categories. Williams and research partners went on to apply their findings to
help ophthalmologists and geneticists classify new disease subtypes, in
particular, age-related macular degeneration.
Fast forward to 2003, and Williams experienced another
radical “God idea.” He was a professor at the University of Iowa when he sensed
God was directing him to transition from research to specifically work with African-American
students. In 2004, Williams and his wife, Anitra, moved to Atlanta with their
three children: Adrianna, Rosa and John. Williams accepted a faculty position
at Spelman College, a historically black college for women.
At Spelman, Williams has applied his robotics research to
create a programming team of students.
“I had seen the Sony AIBO robots and had used them in Iowa
thinking they would be good for training students how to program computers and
robots,” he says. “When I got to Spelman, I was able to start out with four
AIBOs thanks to a grant from our college president.”
The AIBO is a robotic dog, and at the cutting edge of
over-the-counter personal robots. Williams and his team were soon competing
internationally with their AIBOs through the multinational joint research
project, RoboCup. By 2050, RoboCup organizers hope to field a team of humanoid
robots capable of beating a champion human soccer team.
“We started our RoboCup team to play four-legged soccer with
AIBOs,” Williams says. “We were the first all-women team to qualify for the
international competition. In 2005 in Osaka, Japan, there were 24 teams from
around the world, with four from the U.S. The other three U.S. teams were from
big engineering schools, and we’re a small liberal arts college.”
Williams’ team competed in Germany in 2006 and Atlanta in
2007. This May they returned to Japan to compete in RoboCup’s humanoid robot
division using small Nao robots that have replaced AIBOs in competition.
Garbage in, garbage out
He’s “Dr. Williams” to his students and robotics team at
Spelman, but he’s “Dad” at home. And while he would never equate a child with a
robot, Williams points out a few connections fathers can make between computer
programming and healthy parenting.
“In AI there is something called machine learning,” he
explains. “You get robots to improve their performance, based on past
experience. They learn how to do something better. A robot learns certain ‘bad’
behaviors that should not be reinforced, and certain ‘good’ behaviors that
should be reinforced.”
As a parent, Williams says he tries to show his children
there are certain consequences for certain actions.
“If we follow God’s principles and exercise wisdom in our
decisions,” he explains, “there are good consequences. But if we neglect that
wisdom or don’t seek God’s wisdom, there are negative consequences.”
He sees another correlation between raising children and
creating the right input instructions for a computer or robot.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” he says. “If you allow your
children to just watch anything on TV or listen to any kind of music, that
becomes embedded in their brain, their consciousness. They tend to act it out.
Whereas in Psalm 1, God says through David, ‘Blessed is the man who doesn’t
walk in the counsel of the ungodly or stand in the way of the wicked, but his
delight is in the law of the Lord.’ That process of inputting God’s Word into
our minds — through hearing God’s Word, reading, meditating and obeying
— the more we do that day and night, God says we will be fruitful and
Generations of blessing
Williams grew up in poverty, and his mother was often ill.
His father only finished high school and worked as a laborer after serving in
the Army. His mother never made it through elementary school growing up in
“But my parents were the best parents I could ever have,”
Williams says. “I was blessed to have a father who stayed with us. So many
families are single-parent families now. Mom showered love upon us. Whenever it
came to education, my parents would sacrifice for us. All six of us ended up
graduating from college, and four of us have graduate degrees, including two
Now Williams is intent on passing along that heritage of
love and sacrifice to his children.
“Working at a women’s college,” he says, “as a father I want
to make sure my daughters as well as my son believe they can take on any
vocation. There’s a tendency for dads to steer their daughters away from
engineering and science. One of the things I’ve done with our robotics team is
to show that women can compete in a male-dominated robotics research field at
the international level.”
Parents need to raise children to meet their God-given
potential, Williams insists.
“I wrote my book, Out of the Box, to encourage people not to
place themselves in boxes of low expectations or live in a box of fear or
failure,” he says. “Or put God in a box of limiting what He can do in and
through our lives.”
SCOTT HARRUP is senior associate editor of Today’s
Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Out There (sharrup.agblogger.org).
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