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UIX: Young tech engineers program the future in 2016 Atomic Games


Atomic Object is helping young minds experiment with new ideas and methods in the annual Atomic Games, where college students build artificially intelligent systems that can learn and master board games.
Today's most innovative minds aren't just solving the problems of tomorrow, they're teaching machines to learn to do it for them.
 
Such is the motivation for the entrants in this year's Atomic Games, the second annual artificial-intelligence-based competition hosted by Grand Rapids technology firm Atomic Object. Participants in the first Atomic Games created AI programs that competed with each other in one-on-one games of Othello. This year brings a new challenge and more players, according to AO software developer Jesse Hill.
 
Jesse Hill"We don't put any restrictions on what students build or what tools they use," Hill says. "We were actually kind of hoping that someone would go dark and build an AI that attacks the opponents' machine."
 
Short of being creatively deceptive, students also have the option of building a gaming robot the old-fashioned way: translating gameplay into a recognizable code and defining the best possible moves for the machine to learn and replicate accordingly.

 
Most local colleges are represented in this year's Atomic Games, which Hill says is essentially the first step in AO's interview process.
 
"It's not the only path to a job at Atomic, but it's a fun and low-pressure way to for us to get to know each other," Hill says. "We want to build stronger relationships with local Computer Science students and departments. It's great for them to meet professionals in their field and learn more about the career they're working towards, and it's great for us get our name out there and establish Atomic as a great place to start your career."
 
Working Together
 
Other leaders at Atomic Object will assist as coaches, working with each student team throughout the competition. They're looking for signs of leadership, effective communication, respect, and technical skill, all key traits of Atoms.
 
"We watch for enthusiasm throughout the event, for teams that plan out their day realistically, and for students who continue to strive for progress under pressure," Hill says. "We're less concerned about the final results of the tournament than we are about these other areas. The tournament winners do walk away with a nice cash prize though."
 
The $500 prize is an attractive lure, but Hill emphasizes that the real value in the contest is showing students the advantages of working for a consultancy like Atomic Object. Along with the opportunity to learn new languages and platforms, working directly with clients adds business and project management skills to the roles of an Atom.
 
Working with Schools
 
Reaching outside the walls of 1034 Wealthy St., AO has developed close relationships with local college departments. At Calvin College, Hill serves on the Strategic Partners Council, and the company contributes to scholarships for female students.
 
"We sent three or four teams to the games in 2015 and Hill later visited a session we had here on campus in which the student teams recounted their experiences," said Calvin Professor Keith VanderLinden. "The students enjoyed the challenge and, in particular, the chance to work in a production environment with professional project managers. Atomic Object has set the goal of helping to train the next generation project managers and our students have benefited from their efforts."
 
The agile software development techniques taught in Calvin's computer science labs come in handy to Atomic Games Participants. According to Calvin Professor Joel Adams, the games themselves reinforce the traits Calvin's computer science department imbues each student with, and the chance to experiment with the boundaries of technology is an obvious benefit.
 
After its initial novelty wore off in the 60s, Adams says, AI systems were discarded and nearly forgotten by everyone but science fiction writers. With massive caches of data now becoming more accessible, statistical machine learning has, too.
 
"Software systems like Apple’s Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft's Cortana have all made great strides the past few years at understanding what people are saying, which requires a fair degree of intelligence," Adams says. "At Calvin, every CS student gets introduced to AI in our sophomore-level Algorithms course, and those who want to go further can do so in a junior-senior Artificial Intelligence elective course.  The Atomic Games’ focus on AI helps our students see that how challenging it can be to make a machine behave in an intelligent fashion, but also how doing so enables the machine to make better decisions more quickly."
 
Working with Women
 
Atomic Object is a corporate sponsor of Calvin's 50% Initiative, which seeks to improve the representation of women in computer science. According to Adams, there is a growing concern over the gender imbalance in the IT field, and with AO's help, the initiative has begun to see results.
 
"We are very pleased that Atomic Object is so forward-thinking and willing to support our female students this way," Adams says.
 
Morgan Oneka, treasurer of the Grand Valley State University Women In Computing club, worked as an intern for Atomic Object in 2015. Oneka says giving women the opportunity to participate in and see their field up close is important to developing a meaningful career, and AO's efforts have done much to address that. In March, AO hosted GVSU Women in Computing for a "Create Your Own Language" workshop, where Hill and a few other Atoms helped WIC members create their own programming language. Oneka says more workshops are planned for the future, including a few dates for the club's signature "Geek Girls on the Town" events, where club members, joined by women in other schools' computer science clubs, go out to lunch with female tech professionals from the area.
 
"Between the Atomic Games and the Create Your Own Language workshop, I think Atomic Object has really shown GVSU students like myself how creative the world of programming really is, which is something I think students need to break up the monotony of normal classwork," Oneka says.
 
Working Towards the Future
 
Hill says the process of onboarding new hires has been a recent focus of AO. If the company's recent move into a new ultramodern space across the street from the original HQ is any bellwether, AO is experiencing a time of growth, and new Atoms are needed to build on that momentum.
 
"As Atomic has grown, it's becoming more of a challenge for new folks to learn the history, culture, and build relationships within the company," Hill says. "I've really enjoyed working with our leadership to refactor our onboarding process and we've seen very positive results from our new approach. We're focused on onboarding as a process now rather than an event, and we stress the importance of helping new hires build relationships with our leadership and get socially connected within the company."
 
As the Atomic Games commence, Hill and the rest of the AO coaches and mentors are hoping to see some enthusiastic competition bring out the best in the participants. That zeal could land them a pretty amazing job. It did for Hill.
 
"I really love spending time with young developers who are just starting their careers - they bring so much energy and enthusiasm to work each day," he says. "I also love working in a role that's focused on teaching and mentoring - the opportunity for continual learning was a big part of what drew me to a career in software."
 
For more about Atomic Object and the Atomic Games, visit https://atomicobject.com/
 
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.
 
Portrait of Jesse Hill by Steph Harding, other photography courtesy of Atomic Object
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